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The Kooks' Listen reaches for the stars but finds the middle of the road

Sitting down to listen to Listen, I honestly didn’t expect much. The Kooks’ self-imposed exile after the lacklustre hump of Konk and the yawn of Junk of the Heart has seen them keep away from any musical limelight since 2011. I only ever listened to their first album, Inside In/Inside Out, and I think most young people know its curly locks and heartthrob acoustic jams. But The Kooks have always kind of held an odd piece of the musical landscape. Not as sharp as Arctic Monkeys, not as tame as Coldplay, they’ve kind of always played to indie-leaning girls and guys who want to do those girls. But I feel like Listen is attempting to shake things up, and the process starts with rhythm.

The beats and rhythms of Listen stand out immediately, and if you’ve heard lead single “Forgive and Forget” jiving across the airwaves, you know what I mean. R&B, funk, and even 90s Madchester were clearly influences for the band this time around, and it’s funny to say it really works.

The album gets straight down to business, laying down the tambourine and bass/drum synchronisation in “Around Town”, before “Forgive and Forget”, a boppy, bouncing song that is built entirely around its beat, leaps in. The guitar becomes just another part of the rhythm, jumping in and out like Nile Rodgers all over Random Access Memories. The bow is tied with a falsetto “YEAH” that leads in to the chorus (which really explodes with rolling toms), and the package handed over with a cheeky bait and switch intro.

Then there’s “Down”, an equally funk-fuelled track, that sees the beat cut the other way, half marching, half skipping around Luke Pritchard’s “Down down diggy di down down diggy diggy” chorus. The entire album is rendered with a nice rough-hewn lo-fi production, which helps the pop go down a bit easier, making it feel like four guys genuinely played these songs in a room together all at the same time. Which I suppose is what The Kooks have always been about, it just feels really real on Listen, it lends authenticity to what could have been a whole lot of slick schlock.

There’s also some sideways branching to be found. “Are We Electric” drops the guitars for kitschy synth that compliments the equally dorky line of “We’re electric together”. Really it’s a clever move, one that shifts what would have been a generic indie love song up to a level that shows The Kooks are thinking. Instead of picking up the acoustics and bashing out a love ditty, they’ve done the opposite, and I’m grateful for that. “Westside”, as well, clips the drums into a nearly electronic beat, and synth pads cush out the chorus. Then there’s the ballad “See Me Now”, what turns out to be a somewhat touching tribute to Pritchard’s dead parents. It builds well, keeping the grit with a rough beat, but fills the sound with strings and a choir.

But the middle of the road is where The Kooks remain. Listen is a solid album, but it’s not groundbreaking in the grander scope of things. It shakes up the The Kooks sound, but it’s still The Kooks, just a little funkier. There’s no epiphany to be found here, no career second wind like AM gave the Arctics nor a push to festival headline slots like El Camino gave The Black Keys. What Listen does do though, is show The Kooks deserve to continue making music, at least to see if they can really bring it on home next time.

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