Keep on Your Mean Side (2003) – 3 stars
No Wow (2005) – 3 stars
Midnight Boom (2008) – 4.5 stars
The Kills’ first two albums are cousins of each other, each provocative, depressive, refreshingly unusual, and incomplete. 2003’s Keep on Your Mean Side and 2005’s No Wow each offer up, in their best moments, shaving-with-sandpaper grime, with singer VV (Alison Mosshart) dripping a hint of sexiness into her tortured laments.
Keep on Your Mean Side is the better album by a nose, thanks to engrossing, numbing songs like “Cat Claw “ and “Pull a U,” where Hotel fashions his snarling anti-riffs into a swaggering but brooding haze. Elsewhere, VV makes her intentions clear with the line “I get my name stitched on your lips so you won’t get hitched” on the catchy “Hitched,” perhaps the only inviting song here.
Most of the other songs act like they don’t really care whether or not you get engaged, and while that works most of the time, it does force listeners to give the songs some time before they can really get a read. The quality fades at the end, but you can enhance your Kills experience by replacing the meaningless “Hand” with extra track “Sugar Baby” off the deluxe edition.
If you combined the best of these two albums, you’d probably really have something, as No Wow offers up more of the same, both good and bad: they’re still gnarly, and even more dissatisfied than ever. On the absorbing opener, VV lures you in with “You’re gonna have to step over my dead body before you walk out that door,” before she and Hotel patiently build to a hellaciously tortured climax that provides the necessary release that most bands probably couldn’t have achieved.
Elsewhere, “Love is a Deserter” and “Murder Mile” have the potential to get under your skin and mess with your thoughts if played loud enough. VV’s lyrics are more intriguing when she’s playing around with her nightmares, when she’s ambivalent rather than dismissive.
“You got one eye as white as a bride / The other one as black as the devil / It’s alright” is more interesting than the straight-up anti-love songs like “I Hate the Way You Love.” The band makes those songs work, but other times, they succumb to over-repetition, and the slow songs (“I Hate the Way You Love Part 2,” “Ticket Man”) lack bite.
Though those first two minimalist albums were intriguing, they tended to leave you just out of reach, leaving you to wonder whether The Kills had a slightly different, excellent album in them. Well, Midnight Boom, released in 2008, confirmed such hopes. Here, The Kills add vibrant splashes of color to their ever-foreboding sound and crank up the melody, thus pulling off the difficult and rewarding task of sounding dank and sexy. The drum machines and ominous bass lines and snarling guitar are back—all sounding dirtier and more imposing than ever—but there are also new sounds cropping up everywhere, not to mention hauntingly effective lyrics from VV.
Songs feature sounds ranging from coughs to hand claps to doors closing, all thrown together intentionally carelessly on top of the crashing drums and in-and-out guitar lines. From the hand claps of the irresistible “Sour Cherry” (“I’m the only sour cherry on your fruit stand, right?”) underpinning the clammy guitar solo that you’re just dying to hear played in a crowded club; to the winking verses of “U.R.A. Fever” (“Go ahead and have her, go ahead and leave her / You only ever had her when you were a fever”) that give way to clattering drums, synths, and guitar that explode the speakers; to the dense, electrifying jam of “M.E.X.I.C.O.C.U.” that recalls—of all people—Fugazi, the band has never been stronger.
But it’s VV herself who really takes this album to the top, adding onto her characters’ trashy tendencies and despairing outlook a measure of playfulness. As the drugged-out, morbid-sounding tunes sigh and sulk and tease behind her, she eloquently articulates that feeling of desiring what you shouldn’t have, of wanting the bad boy or girl, of getting a thrill out of the unstable.
“Getting Down” rides an impeccable groove, but VV’s lyrics suggest a mischievous smile underneath. Pure ear candy “Last Day of Magic” features her promising to sweep someone up as “the guts of the room,” while on “Cheap and Cheerful,” over a ferociously catchy bass line, she purrs, “I want you to be crazy ‘cause you’re stupid, baby, when you’re straight.” Playful and knowing and risky, it’s the one line that comes closest to summing up what The Kills are now about.
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