Review Summary: 20 years since the band's heyday has done them some good.
Kula Shaker. They still make music. Who knew? Imagine my shock when on one drunken, random Googling night, I discover that Kula Shaker had a new album released in 2016. It’s entitled K 2.0, a name that harkens back to their past and only real taste of success. I’ve always had a soft spot for K, and I’m still an ardent supporter of their sophomore psychedelic rock album Peasants, Pigs, and Astronauts. Sure, the whole 60s attitude, obsession with Indian culture, and ridiculously free spirited lyrics always came across as a wee bit silly. When you throw in some strange controversy involving swastika symbols (it’s on Wikipedia if you’re curious), it’s not much of a surprise that Kula Shaker faded from the collective consciousness back in 1999. But damn, these guys knew their way around a hook, no?
So here we are, album number five. I didn’t even know there was a three or four (did anyone?). And my curiosity got the better of me… just what does a Kula Shaker album released in 2016 sound like? And more importantly, is it any good?
It’s funny, even after 20 years removed from their most successful album, Kula Shaker has not changed a single bit. If you have a passing and cursory knowledge of this band’s sound and style, you know exactly what to expect from K 2.0. I had to laugh at the opening track Infinite Sun initially- the sitars, the Native Indian chanting, the comically silly lyrics- “We are one with the infinite sun, fly like an eagle” it goes. But once the distorted guitar riff kicked in along with the pounding drums, it was business as usual. In fact, it suddenly turned into a pretty groovy little tune, and I found myself bopping my head along with a slight grin. Their knack for writing catchy hippy anthems was a strong as ever, and singer Crispian Mills sounds exactly as he did back in the 90s.
The momentum continues along with tracks like Holy Flame, the jangly, fantastic politically charged Death of Democracy, and the insidiously catchy Oh Mary. The song writing is very consistent, and coupled with sleek production values that gives the album a professional sheen, make the band sound muscular and alive. Various sound effects such as a train barreling from one speaker to another coupled with the usual array of sitars, organs, and loud guitars instantly bring back memories of Govinda and Tattva. Not bad for a nearly 20 year old band that, as far as I can tell, like to take extended breaks.
All is not perfect on K 2.0, however, and there are a few duds to note. 33 Crows is a folksy acoustic ditty that halts whatever momentum the album had going for it; it’s lethargic, boring, and out of place. But the worst offender here is High Noon. The title was a bit of a giveaway that this would be some kind of Western cowboy themed song, and my worst fears were confirmed when I actually listened to it. Aside from the fact that it sounds like the theme song to a low budget cowboy show, the song goes nowhere. It’s offensive, and boring- all of the Morricone style twangs can’t help this one. This easily ranks as my most hated Kula Shaker song personally. The fact that these two tracks come in the middle of the album is irritating.
And yet, the album also contains a track called Love B With U, and this easily qualifies as one of the best songs I’ve heard from Kula Shaker and if they were smart, they would push this track hard as a single. It’s a suave, lively, memorable song with an excellent chorus; a real toe tapper that will have ear wormed itself in your head in no time. It even seems to be inspired by, of all people, Pharrell Williams- think a Britpop influenced take on “Freedom” and throw in a memorable chorus that simultaneously evokes the flower power era and the urge to dance.
So there’s no doubt the album is a bit of a mixed bag- the album features some extremely strong material coupled with some out of place songs that grinds the album to a halt. But credit should be given where it’s due- when it connects, it does so with a vitality that is impressive for band that is stubbornly sticking to its’ admittedly aged formula. Fans of psychedelic rock, Britpop, and anyone who recalls and enjoyed the heyday of Kula Shaker’s past successes will no doubt find much to love on here. It’s got some impressive material and it has managed to re-spark my interest in the band. Definitely not a bad effort for a band that had been written off as a minor musical footnote in Britpop’s history.