Four albums into their career and it became clear to the Kooks it was time to shake things up. Their third record, 2011's Junk of the Heart, came dangerously close to the middle of the road -- it was excessively polished and reliant on measured pop tunes -- and didn't make anybody's pulse race, so the group decided to take a different tactic on 2014's Listen. Hooking up with Inflo, a British hip-hop producer who makes his big-time debut here, the Kooks definitively take a step toward a fresher, modern music, one that's informed by dance music and rap, not to mention a retro-new wave fetish that's simultaneously old and new. Classicists that they are, the Kooks don't necessarily sound futuristic as they expand their horizons; when they dabble in disco on "Forgive & Forget" they recall not only the future shock of 1980 but also Franz Ferdinand, the single "Down" dilutes and angelicizes Kid Rock's "Batwatdibaba," while "Westside" and "Are We Electric" get slathered in synths straight out of 1982. These rhythmic tracks, which are a far cry from the caution of Junk of the Heart, are paired with limber guitar pop ("It Was London," "Bad Habit") that is firmly within the quartet's wheelhouse. The more familiar sounds are paired with the sturdiest songwriting but what gathers attention here are the tracks furthest afield from the Kooks' traditional pop. Especially after the staid Junk, the deliberate liveliness of Listen is indeed welcome, and sometimes, the results come close to infectious. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine
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