Like all good bands concerned with getting on with the business of making the music that matters to them, The Little Kicks have been doing just that over the past half-decade. While the Aberdeen four-piece have enjoyed plenty of radio play and stages with bands like Foals and Frightened Rabbit, they have been taking the low road for the most part, not looking to overdo what they are capable of and sticking to a path that suited them. On their third album, Shake Off Your Troubles, the band arguably travel further down this path, sounding less like they have to impress and more like they want to sit and ruminate with friends over times past.
Consider “Girl,” the lead single from the band’s previous album, Put Your Love In Front Of Me. Boasting a flashy streak of glassy neon guitars and an increasingly teasing dance strut, it was out to impress as much as it was out there to lure in the more gentle souls at the club.
If Put Your Love In Front Of Me had them as the centre of attention at the club – basking in the spotlight and the DJ giving them an approving and knowing nod from the booth – then Shake Off Your Troubles casts them as the introspective guy sitting at the edge of the club near the bar; unmoved by the loud music and sweaty bodies, and more concerned with dealing with reality and problems as they are. Here the band sound like they’re ready to replace the club with an empty hotel bar at 2am.
That isn’t to say they don’t still groove. The band can still elicit some movement, especially on a track like “You And Someone Like Me” which manages to grind both hard and soft as Scott Kelman’s drums draw out the movement between the synth notes and guitar ripples. “Bang Your Drum Slowly” marches forward with a robotic motion as lead singer/guitarist Steven Milne issues instructions: “Shake, shake, shake off your woes and troubles/ Bang, bang, bang your drum slowly,” he declares as the surrounding soundworld of crashing cymbals, needly guitars, and expanding synths sounds like it’s falling in on him. Even the opening instrumental “Theme” has a cold and bare dance groove to it, setting the musical tone of the album ahead, but also sounding like it’s drawing out spirits from an old tomb (albeit via drum machines, keyboards, and whammied guitar strums).
Elsewhere the band settles into a more introspective place, quietly boasting a more thoughtful feel. On the rain-soaked piano ballad “Gone But Not Forgotten” Milne sings to a past friend and/or lover with an air of genuine care; it’s hard to tell whether the person of interest has moved on or left this world entirely. Although the album title may instruct the listener to rid themselves of worries and troubles, Milne doesn’t sound quite ready to do that himself. He spends a good portion of the album looking back, which is evident from the song titles alone: “Before We Were Friends” and “Goodbye Enemies, Hello Friends,” for instance. The tone suits him and the rest of the band, though. The Little Kicks have always favoured coyer but on the nose declarations of adoration and love; a couplet of theirs may be predictable and sappy at points, but it is always delivered with complete sincerity which makes it so easy to fall for the band’s under spoken and uninstrusive charm.
It also helps that Milne and his bandmates are very adept at constructing tracks that nestle into your head sweetly. Lead single and album highlight “Goodbye Enemies, Hello Friends” begins with advice that the band probably unintentionally curtail. “Stop trying to be a perfect singer / Stop trying to write the perfect song,” offers Milne as the band build up a track that may well sit as their best to date. It unfurls and flourishes in just under four minutes with uplifting drum fills, transcendent backing vocals, and subtle sweeps of strings before the song’s title becomes a mantra that has the listener wishing to leave behind all those who have ever caused them grief. It’s uplifting without ever feeling like its forcing a sense of positivity into your skull; it drives its message home with a sweet and believing air, like a family member encouraging you on from the sidelines at a sporting event.
The fact that the band retreated to a lodge by Loch Ness to write and record the album is telling here. There’s more air between the notes than on previous efforts, and though the album runs shy of 40 minutes with just ten tracks, it rarely feels hurried. On the most bustling track, “Let’s Get Lost Together,” the band sound their most uncomfortable – but Milne’s declaration of “love don’t come so easily to me” during the chorus balances the hurried feel of the track out. “Don’t Get Mad, Get Even” has Milne playing the reassuring friend in the middle of the night, singing “So don’t ask me about things I can’t control…So don’t lose sleep over things you can never know” with a tone that sinks in slowly rather than lectures whoever is listening. There might be instances of contention in Milne’s lyrics on “Don’t Get Mad, Get Even” (and other songs too), but he always approaches the problems he presents with a reasonable and diplomatic tone, like that of someone who has had time to reflect properly in a space away from where the troubles erupted. Problems in the world might exist as far as Milne is concerned, but what matters is how we react and deal with them. In the Little Kicks’ case, they carry on along the path that suits them best: hunker down and don’t let petty troubles get in the way of the job that needs to be done.