Album Review: Kula Shaker – Natural Magick

With a swirling, heady and supercharged approach, Kula Shaker is back. Darlings of the ‘90s Britpop scene, the group led by Crispian Mills made some of the most appealing music of the ‘90s. And while many might not have known it, the band never broke up. Their approach – think Blur, Oasis or Stone Roses crossed with mid sixties George Harrison – was refreshingly novel then, and it still resonates today. The 13 songs on their latest, Natural Magick – out digitally in February, with physical release to follow in March – display all of the sonic virtues that made Kula Shaker a breath of fresh air three decades ago.

The band is intact, with all four original members on board (keyboardist Jay Darlington left for a number of years but is back on board now). And the sound hasn’t changed in any substantial way. But then there’s no good reason that it should have done: the propulsive underpinning to their songs, as showcased on, well, every damn track, is a recipe for success. Mills’ voice is in fine form, and his lyrics continue to focus on having a good time leavened with a (never overbearing) spiritual bent.

The sitars and tablas still figure into the mix, but they’re generally dialed back a bit as compared to the arrangements on K, the group’s stellar 1996 debut. Shouted chorus vocals are something of a hallmark on Natural Magick; the opening track “Gaslighting” features both Mills and bassist Alonza Bevan chanting lyrics. And the title track features mass vocals reminiscent of Go! Team (but with that Britpop foundation).

Peppy handclaps and ‘60s combo organ pop up in “Indian Record Player,” but so too do other sonic textures including some absolutely lovely orchestral strings. If anyone ever remade The Beatles’ Help! – though they really shouldn’t – this song could fit into the soundtrack. The fetching “Chura Liya (You Stole My Heart” has a character that’s equal parts faux-Spanish (by way of Herb Alpert) and spaghetti western, with an unexpected female lead soprano vocal.

The Indian musical values that informed early Kula Shaker finally come to the fore on “Something Dangerous.” Its alluring campfire character might call to mind the Beatles’ Rishikesh adventure. And while nearly all Kula Shaker music is breathlessly upbeat, the band slows things way down for the waltzing balladeering of “Stay With Me Tonight.” With faint echoes of early ‘70s Rolling Stones, it’s a nice break from the raving, and shows a subtler side of the group.

“Happy Birthday” (not the one you’re thinking of) serves up more of those irresistible Indian vibes, crossed skillfully with a deep groove and some tasty yet straightforward Hammond organ. The band rocks – and hard – on “Idontwannapaymytaxes,” protest music, Kula Shaker style. But there’s a giddiness, a sense of fun that keeps the message from getting too serious. A sort of spoken-word-with-music addendum to that track, “F-Bombs” feels like the kind of thing that would have worked better live onstage. It’s neither terrible nor an embarrassment, but neither is it especially necessary in the musical context of the album.

That very minor quibble notwithstanding, Natural Magick is astoundingly consistent: every song sounds like Kula Shaker, yet every track offers something unique. The songs aren’t a case of “that was good; let’s write twelve more like it.” And while the backing vocals on the band’s records have always been solid, on Natural Magick they seem to have taken things to the next level. “Whistle and I Will Come” delivers rock power, subtlety and a life-affirming vibe all within the confines of a three-minute-plus pop tune.

“Kalifornia Blues” swaggers, but its la-la-la vocal breaks and bits of jangle make the tune feel inviting, not petulant or threatening. And the album ends with something completely different: “Give Me Tomorrow” strips away the busy dance floor percussion and creates a vibe that wouldn’t have been at all out of place on a George Harrison album of the ‘70s. The tune might come as something of a shock to those who have been drawn in by Kula Shaker’s signature sound, yet it’s ultimately not inconsistent with their body of work. It’s a swoonworthy love song – with ultra-subtle quoting of The Beatles’ “This Boy” — sporting a soaring arrangement, and a contender for the best cut on a rock-solid album.

Mills and his band mates (Bevan and Darlington plus drummer Paul Winterhart) have long since perfected their blend of East and West, and far from sounding dated and fixed-in-the-’90s, Natural Magick sounds and feels timeless. And the stop-on-a-dime dynamics used to conclude several of the album’s tracks is an effective production/arrangement choice.

Nearly three decades after their debut, Kula Shaker have roared back with a winner. Let’s hope a U.S. tour follows (there was one last year, but I only learned of it days ago).