Kitchens of Distinction – ‘Elephantine’ (1989)

Despite critical acclaim, Kitchens of Distinction never made a commercial breakthrough during the 1980s and 1990s. Image courtesy of Ned Raggett via Flickr.

The value of the stand-alone single could be something that has been repeatedly undermined in the music industry.

Although these type of records are usually released during a long break in recording, to keep eager fans happy, it allows flexibility to experiment and try out new musical styles.

Sometimes the end result can be a self-indulgent mess but, mostly, it can help to refine a promising sound that hasn’t quite hit its stride.

‘Elephantine’ by Kitchens of Distinction definitely sits in the latter category.

There’s no denying that tracks like ‘Shiver’ from their début album, ‘Love Is Hell’, were intelligent and passionate pieces of dream-pop, with dark post-punk undertones, but there was something missing.

Their sound was finely crafted but it was also, perhaps, a little two-dimensional and didn’t mirror the complexity of Patrick Fitzgerald’s lyrics.

The positives outweighed the negatives, though, and the group had a strong template – their musical style just needed to be more relaxed.

‘Elephantine’, released in October 1989 between their LPs – ‘Love Is Hell’ and follow-up ‘Strange Free World’ – did a lot to eradicate those minor flaws and create a more coherent style.

It was not an extreme change, though, as the track was just part of the group’s natural development.

Guitarist Julian Swales’s jangly riffs were still part of the furniture, but were now seamlessly overlapping with ambient and swirling effects to create a more multifaceted sound.

It ending up feeling more complex and dimensional than previous efforts, which was far more in line with the band’s most controversial element: its lyrics.

Fans of the band have felt that the group’s lyrical content was the reason why they never a commercial impact, despite all of the critical praise.

Margaret’s Injection’, one of the tracks on the ‘Elephantine’ EP, fantasised about killing Margaret Thatcher. Meanwhile, Fitzgerald’s homosexuality was the main focus point (although it was expressed less frequently than some claim) on songs like ‘Hammer’ and ‘Breathing Fear’ – which was unfairly seen as controversial at the time, mainly because an openly gay frontman in a independent band used to be more of a rarity.

And ‘Elephantine’ was, again, thought-provoking – with its lyrics cleverly painting a subtle picture of poverty.

The lyrical standards remained as high as ever but, even when put together with a more refined and evocative sound, the end product is challenging and rewarding.

If ‘Elephantine’ doesn’t sound original in 2011, it’s perhaps due to the fact that other groups have used their sound as a template and furthered it – despite them being criminally undervalued in the music industry.

Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, for example, has proclaimed Swales as an influence numerous times, with ‘There, There’ particularly resembling Kitchen of Distinction’s sound.

Bloc Party, meanwhile, had similar lyrical conceptualisation to Fitzgerald’s musings, despite Kele Okereke displaying greater political and sexual ambiguity.

Also, the press coverage of Okereke’s sexuality is a stark reminder that Fitzgerald was a braver and more groundbreaking lyricist than he has been given credit for.

Although the group’s lack of commercial success signalled the sociological and political state of Britain in the late 1980s, they were not a band of their time.

‘Elephantine’ is just as intelligently written and produced in 2011, as it was in 1989, and the group should be regarded as an important band in helping to further develop the political outlook of the British music scene.

And this makes it even harder to comprehend how their legacy is relatively non-existent.

It just goes to show that the more significant can, on occasions, remain underappreciated.

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This review was self-published in August 2011.

Non-web sources

Gambaccini, Paul et al (eds) (1996) The Guinness Book of British Hit Albums. 7th edition. London: Guinness Publishing.

Rabid, J. (1993) KOD: Kitchens Of Distinction. The Big Takeover, Issue 33, pp.25-32.

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