Last weekend, my wife and I took our yearly sojourn to our old home in Cambridge, MA. On these vacations we consume mass quantities, frequent old haunts and attend whatever concert we found on the schedule for that particular weekend. The weekend (with one exception, more on this in a minute) went exactly as planned. We landed at Logan Airport at Too Goddamn Early AM and grabbed a cup of Dunkin and prepped our nostalgia schedule as we waited for the T shuttle.
Check in at the Sheraton Commander. Two blocks away from our old apartment. When we walk by I will inevitably sing Barenaked Ladies’ “The Old Apartment” and wonder whether the next tenants re-painted the bathroom tile floor that we painted purple. Then lunch at Boca Grande. Chile verde burrito grande, por favor. Oof. An americano at Simon’s Coffee. Followed by a wander around the Public Gardens and Newbury Street. Margin Call at the Coolidge Corner Theatre (my old place of brief employ) in Bookline and an hour in Brookline Booksellers. A whole pizza at Upper Crust. Always better than I remember. If only Pittsburgh knew how to make a goddamn pizza. Saturday morning brought Sticky Buns at Flour Bakery. Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey at the Brattle Theater. I torture myself by still receiving the Brattle schedule in the mail. Why must I submit myself to such masochism? And now they serve beer. Sigh. Some more coffee at Simon’s and then on to the concert of the weekend.
Last year we saw Frightened Rabbit play the Paradise. I bumped into an old high school buddy I hadn’t seen since graduation. Hi Jon Min. This year, The Kooks at the House of Blues, no Jon Min and we showed up wicked, wicked late to the show. Let me explain. My wife is pregnant with child #2 and we couldn’t fathom standing for hours of both the Postelles and the Kooks and all the time in between. So we planned to arrive fashionably late. Maybe catch the tail end of the Postelles, maybe not. However it worked out. Anyway, we arrived at around 8:30 or so and heard what sounded like the Kooks from outside. I assumed it was just the between-set house playlist keeping the masses occupied. Nope. That was the Kooks. I figured we couldn’t have missed much. No worries. A few songs later frontman Luke Pritchard gave the obligatory “Thank you, goodnight!” pre-encore bit and hopped off stage. I go “WTF.” My wife remains silent. A dude behind me goes “He’s joking, right?” Clearly we weren’t the only late arrivals. Nope. He wasn’t kidding. The tickets show no start time. A quick search on the Android reveals a 6:30pm start time. Is this a recital or a rock concert? A bit more digging reveals that many Saturday shows at the House of Blues start around dunch (or linner). Why? Apparently there’s a rocking good time gay dance party later in the PM and we’ve got to clear the squares out before the fun really begins. Good to know. Little late, though. But on to the point.
During the seven or so songs I had the pleasure of viewing for my $60 ticket I was struck that The Kooks have kinda gotten a bum deal by critics.
A few samples of criticism from their latest album, Junk of the Heart:
From BBC Music: “a messy selection of meandering verses that surely can’t be the product of three years’ work.”
Q Magazine: “…feels like a splash of teenage aftershave: a pass at sophistication, not the real deal.”
New Music Express: “There’s just an unavoidable sense here of a band who aren’t quite sure what their purpose is anymore.”
Sum total: a MetaCritic score of 54.
To put this in perspective, the new Nickelback album got a 57.
Clearly the Kooks aren’t breaking any new ground, but to put them three points behind Nickelback’s aggregate score is inconceivable. Unconscionable, really. I like the Kooks. And they’re even better live due to Luke’s stage presence. I’ve mentioned it before when writing about my love for Guster shows but a lot can be gained by watching a band have fun on stage. The Kooks enjoyed playing for that sold out show in Boston and I don’t doubt that everyone there felt like they’d seen a solid rock show. There are plenty of assholes out there that would argue my point of the Kooks playing “rock” music, but if you discount their blend of 60s brit-pop and 90s alt-rock, you’re discounting the legions of legitimately credentialed bands that inspired this sound. The Rolling Stones. The Police. The Strokes.
The primary criticism of the Kooks seems to be that they’ve done nothing to distinguish themselves. From who, exactly? Perhaps this is because the perceptions is that they’ve catered to a crowd of non-discerning music lovers. That they started out with an album that promised something edgier before slipping on their waders and returning to the mild midstream with their subsequent two releases. And honestly there’s truth to be found in all of these criticisms, but what many of these detractors don’t seem to consider is that they’re holding the Kooks up to a the critical standard of modern alternative bands: that is, a band must innovate and thus create some kind of barrier to entry to the casual listener. After all, we don’t want the uncool or – gasp – even worse, our parents listening to our jams. That would truly be the end of days.
Instead of holding the Kooks up against, say, Radiohead, maybe we should actually consider the music they’re making right now. Don’t consider what they could have been or what their early album may have suggested. Right now Luke and co. are crafting pop songs. Hold the phone! Pop music? Ugh. If you think I’ve buried my argument already by calling it pop music then there’s just no hope for you. Pop music doesn’t just mean Top 40 radio hits. It is, by its very definition, music accessible by the masses. But pop music doesn’t have to be mass produced or pre-fab. Pop music can be finely crafted tunes that won’t see nary more than a few minutes of commercial airplay beyond college radio. And in this light, the Kooks have succeeded. The mellow title track from Junk of the Heart is pleasant, maybe a little charming in its simplicity. Holy shit, I just used the terms “pleasant” and “charming” without any derogatory subtext. On the other hand, the Hugh Harris’ guitar on a number of these songs actually oozes with technical ability and driving musicality, like the blues-tinged riff on the exceptionally catchy “Do You Wanna” from Konk. Or “Naïve” from Inside In / Inside Out. There’s plenty to like about the Kooks. If they’re not your thing, then they’re not your thing, but don’t cast them aside as failures on a promise they never made. Maybe they’re not a great band, but aren’t there only so many spots reserved for great bands? And an infinite number of spots for the bands that fail to be great. The Kooks just decided to be something else: a band that might have been great (but probably wasn’t) that settled on making entertaining records without delusions of grandeur. The Kooks may not last forever, but they’re a lot of fun while they last.
Just make sure to arrive on time, or you might miss them altogether and instead unwittingly walk into EPIC Saturdays at the House of Blues… not that there’s anything wrong with that.