Kasabian's third album is a retro-inspired return to form for the good-time Leicester lads.
Kasabian: West Rider Pauper Lunatic Asylum
Few bands are as widely loathed as they are loved, but the Leicester five-piece Kasabian are certainly one of them. Sure, they're one of the UK's biggest-selling acts, but since making their debut in 2004 they have struggled to live down the accusation that they only exist to plug the gaps between Oasis albums. It's hard to tell whether it's Kasabian's music or the undeniable swaggering of their band members that helped ferment the group's fraternity with thick-skulled laddishness. It probably started with the influences: the gruff lead vocals, akin to Noel Gallagher and Ian Brown, check. The brazen mash-up of rock and dance à la Primal Scream or the Happy Mondays, check. The stadium-sized chant-like choruses with rubbish lyrics, check and check again. In short, they sound like every band who has had a love-affair with the lad.
But not any more. The record cover of West Rider Pauper Lunatic Asylum is a dead giveaway - it shows the band apparently trying to outdo each other in a "who can look like the biggest dandy" competition. And the songs are equally camp. Far from the surgical bass-driven funk of the early hits Club Foot and Processed Beats - West Rider is full of lush string arrangements, grandiose psychedelic voyages and even a little soppy balladry. And in places it's rather brilliant.
The album essentially builds on the more diverse sound that the band began to explore with its last album, Empire. But there's a feeling that West Rider Pauper Lunatic Asylum could just be their masterpiece - albeit an imperfect one. It's co-produced by Dan the Automator, the US-based Gorillaz knob twiddler and DJ. His presence is particularly noticeable on the album's drum sounds that, starting with the opener, Underdog, are given the sun-drenched 1960s treatment. Its many synth and keyboard noises also owe more to the world of 1960s and early 1970s psychedelia than they do to anything that was debuted at The Hacienda.
The retro influences continue on the second track, Where Did All the Love Go?, Although it starts with a rhythm section that wouldn't go amiss on a Blondie record, it quickly turns tail and heads towards the janglier territory of The Kinks or The Faces. Soon after comes the fuzz-punk of Fast Fuse, owing more than a little to Gorillaz. It's not long before Kasabian head back to hippiedom though, with the wailing Joplinesque Take Aim and the shuffling shanty Thick As Thieves.
The most noticeable return to their old ways is Vlad the Impaler, which employs a bouncing bass line and thumping drums, completed by a hundred-kilometre-an-hour verse. If it were a little less skuzzy, it could happily sit on their debut album. Perhaps Kasabian's lad-rock associations are partly due to the fact that the boys just wanna have fun. From the spaghetti western grandiosity of West Ryder Silver Bullet to the thumping Jane's Addiction-esque "get loose, get loose" refrain in Vlad the Impaler - it's hard not to enjoy yourself when the band is clearly having so much fun. Although its influences are often diverse and rather niche, the end result is an album that's as accessible as a Saturday morning cartoon.
Unfortunately though, the first half of West Ryder is much better than the second. Ladies and Gentlemen is a dreary and ungainly ballad. Fire is reminiscent of Britpop's darker and more overblown days. And throughout the album, the lyrics remain consistently rubbish. Despite the flaws, the group's third effort is a success - sounding ambitious, cohesive and undeniably fun. The band also shows off an artistry and spread of influences that entitle them to be seen as much more than the choice of football hooligans.
Kasabian's problem is that they have always worn their influences so heavily on their sleeves that it rendered the group almost defenceless against criticism. While other bands manage to show off an influence and seem all the cooler for it, the Leicester lads inevitably sound like "Kasabian doing ...". That hasn't really changed here, but perhaps it's time to stop hating them for it.