Tuesday, April 4, 2017

CD Odyssey Disc 989: The Kills

As I sit here writing this review there is a professional cleaner in my house cleaning my kitchen and bathroom, and vacuuming and tidying my living room. If you have never had someone else clean your house, it is pretty wonderful. If you have had someone else clean your house for years, then take a minute right now to reflect about how truly awesome that is, and how lucky you are.

OK – on to the review.

Disc 989 is…Ash & Ice
Artist: The Kills

Year of Release: 2016

What’s up with the Cover? Two of the coolest things that involve ash and ice: a volcano and a martini. Personally, I prefer my martini with a twist of lemon over an olive, but a martini is a martini.

As for my volcanoes, I prefer them dormant when I’m climbing around on them and furiously erupting with lava when I am a safe distance away. Perspective is everything.

How I Came To Know It: I have been a fan of the Kills for years, so this was just me buying their new album on faith when it came out.

How It Stacks Up:  I have all five of the Kills’ studio albums. Of those five I must reluctantly put “Ash & Ice” in last – and not just because of the use of the ampersand in the title (although that never helps).

Ratings: 2 stars

“Ash & Ice” sees the Kills add a bit of eighties reverb and drum machine to their signature garage rock sound. While I liked that the band is growing their sound a little, the result didn’t appeal to me as much as their earlier records.

As with many of their records, the Kills are a band that make garage music where the beat is king. Groovy drum licks define most of the songs, and while the guitar makes the sound flower, it is the rhythm section that is the vase that holds everything together.

It helps to have Alison Mosshart on lead vocals. Her bluesy growl drives the energy of the songs at the top end and she has a sixth sense for knowing when to cut loose and when to just let the groove flow for a while. While she almost always settles down in the middle of the pocket she does it in a way that makes you feel like she’s restless, and ready to break out at any moment. It is this rebellious tension that gives these relatively basic songs the energy they need to thrive.

In places on “Ash & Ice” Mosshart adopts a bit more of a pop sensibility, with some sweetness creeping into her tone. This is evident on both the opening track “Doing it to Death” and the final one, “Whirling Eye”.

Both those songs have heavy eighties New Wave influences, as well as some drumbeats that sounded suspiciously artificial. If they weren’t made on a drum machine, they were made with the sound a drum machine in mind. I am not a fan of the drum machine.

Both also have coquettish “oh oh oh” singing in the background that would be more at home on a Kylie Minogue album. I have nothing against Kylie Minogue – she’s pretty cool, actually – but that kind of production in the middle of a Kills album felt out of place. Worse, the artificiality at the front of some of the songs made my ear start picking it out on other tracks where it is more in the background, reducing my enjoyment of those ones as well.

The Kills have always had a talent for heartbreaking ballads on otherwise rocking albums, and “Ash & Ice” delivers a good one with “That Love.” A stripped down song featuring a lone piano and Mosshart giving the sad news:

“It’s over now
It’s over now
That love you’re in
Is all fucked up.”

It is heartbreaking and unlike a lot of singers, Mosshart knows how to use a swear word with the right mix of vitriol and casualness that is the key to making such words work. Swear like you mean it, but also like you’ve done it before. “That Love” is a powerful and raw song and was almost enough all on its own for me to keep this record. Almost.

The other strong track, “Heart of a Dog” is vintage Kills, with its pounding beat, sparse riffs and reverb. This song has a bit of techno-drum at the beginning, but it quickly develops into a ballsy rock song, layering three or four complementary riffs that cycle around like sharks in chum-filled water.

Sadly, the album is too much chum and not enough shark. A lot of the other tracks made me wishing I could put on an early Kills album that was a bit more raw and real. This isn’t a bad album, but I had to ask myself how often I was going to play it. Even when I am keen to hear the Kills when I go to that section of the collection, will I pull out “Ash & Ice” or will my hand pass over it and land instead on “Keep on Your Mean Side” or “Blood Pressures”. Probably the latter.

Add in the backdrop of a quickly diminishing amount of space to store all this damned music (yes, I cling stubbornly to physical media) and I need to make tough decisions. Today’s tough decision is to part with “Ash & Ice” and send it on to a good home only sixth months after I welcomed it into mine.

Best tracks: Heart of a Dog, That Love, Impossible Tracks

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