Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Revisiting Little Kix

Poor Little Kix. To call it the 'black sheep' of Mansun's lamentably small discography would be somewhat misleading - that phrase implies mould-breaking and rebellion, neither of which are particularly applicable here - but it's certainly true that the Mansun faithful have very little love for this album.

The recurring conversation within the fandom (such as it is) is always, "Which is your favourite - Attack of the Grey Lantern or Six?" It's kind of a foregone conclusion that nobody will ever choose Little Kix over its brothers; without wishing to put too fine a point on it, the album simply isn't worthy of the band who created it. If I might liken Mansun's repertoire to the Chipmunks: Attack of the Grey Lantern is kooky, loveable Theodore; Six is thoughtful, intelligent Simon; and Little Kix is Alvin, the one that was supposed to be everybody's favourite but actually comes across as completely charmless and unlikeable.

The story of Little Kix is a modern fable, a testament to the merits of creativity over calculated commercialism: Parlophone, in an attempt to cultivate something slightly more radio-friendly than the challenging nu-prog sound that the band had explored on Six, used their record label sway to remove Mansun frontman Paul Draper from the producer's chair and force him to make all manner of tweaks, changes and edits to the songs he was writing.

For example, Forgive Me - one of the album's more forgettable moments, and that's saying something - was originally supposed to be a sexy Prince homage, but Parlophone (according to Little Kix's Wikipedia entry) had the song neutered, leaving it bereft of both sexuality and personality:

But did this sand-off-the-edges approach get results for the record company? Not if the album charts are anything to go by. Attack of the Grey Lantern went straight to #1 when it was released in 1997; Six debuted at #6, which you've got to admit is a pretty nifty coincidence even if it did represent something of a decline in sales. Little Kix peaked at #12, six places lower than its predecessor.

Which, lest we forget, was one of the most dense, complicated, and non-commercial releases of the Britpop era.

"Ah," I hear you cry, "but Little Kix wasn't a *total* flop, was it? I Can Only Disappoint U was among the best-selling singles of the band's career!"

That's true, and to be fair, I've been revisiting the album today and it certainly isn't a complete write-off. The first three tracks are fab: Butterfly (A New Beginning) has an elegance - both in terms of structure and delivery - that's lacking elsewhere, while the chorus of Comes as No Surprise displays some of the same bite as You, Who Do You Hate? from Grey Lantern. And, yes, I Can Only Disappoint U is entirely deserving of its place alongside the big singles like Wide Open Space and Legacy on Mansun's best-of compilation.

From track 4 onwards, though, things go downhill. The majority of Little Kix feels directionless, bloated, and - in spite of Parlophone's well-intentioned interference - less catchy and immediate than anything on Grey Lantern (heck, even Six had better singles). This is a shame, because a genuinely poppy Mansun album would have been awesome; perhaps they could reform and have another go at it? Martin 'Cherry Cherry Boom Boom' Kierszenbaum could produce.

Even more frustrating than the troublesome lack of tunes is the way in which, when the album does hit musical gold, it gives us a completely separate reason to not enjoy it. We Are The Boys is one of the more tuneful cuts on this album - from a strictly sonic standpoint, it's very much a highlight, a soaring, singalong relief from the dull meander that dominates Little Kix - but the song's lyrics make it just as hard to love as the tracks either side of it:

"We are the boys, think about nothing amd/We are the boys, boys have got feelings too"

Remember, this is from the band whose first two albums were a cross-dressing comic book noir and a numerologist-baiting mindfuck, respectively. At best, We Are The Boys is a lazy let-down, with lyrics more befitting Oasis than Mansun; at worst, it's some sort of godawful 'not all men' MRA anthem.

If Little Kix does have a saving grace, it's the strings. The listener is treated to a stunning array of lush string arrangements throughout the LP, and this does help to keep things sounding fresh, even if it's not enough to make songs like Love Is... and Electric Man any more memorable. Mind you, I will happily admit that Soundtrack 4 2 Lovers is great - the difference there, I suppose, is that the string section is the main driving force behind the song, rather than an afterthought that was tacked on for added pomp.

Side note for any Mansunites reading this: was Soundtrack 4 2 Lovers used in an advert or something? It sounded familiar from the first time I heard it, but I've never been able to work out why.

See, there's a reason why I haven't already given my copy of Little Kix to a charity shop or sold it at a car boot sale. It's definitely not a good album, but it's not an entirely bad album, either; as mentioned above, I like Butterfly and I Can Only Disappoint U and Soundtrack 4 2 Lovers, and if I banished Kix from The Album Wall, I would be losing a clutch of genuinely good tunes.

But even if that weren't the case, I think I'd keep this album handy. A black sheep it may be, but just as the Chipmunks wouldn't really make sense without Alvin, the Mansun story would be incomplete without Little Kix ruining everything and bringing the band to a tragically premature end. Whether because of the songs themselves or because of the creative clampdown they represent, this album is nobody's favourite, but in the end, it's still a Mansun album (it even has their logo on the front) and it must still be acknowledged, no matter how sour we feel towards it.

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