The Kills have broke upon US shores riding a massive wave of hype that would have one believe they were the second coming of the White Stripes (as if another was needed) only with a P.J. Harvey-type providing earthy, soulful vocals. After hearing the first two songs of Keep on Your Mean Side, one can certainly see where such an assessment would have come from: “Superstition” and “Cat Claw” marry catchy sputtering garage riffs courtesy of “Hotel” to the throaty, assertive vocals of “VV”, creating a stern yet seductive sound promising both the sugary thrills of the White Stripes and the searing revelations of Rid of Me-era Harvey.
But as the album wears on, it also wears thin, and the transparency of the Kills’ pose becomes more and more apparent. Sure, VV has an intriguing, expressive voice, but has she got anything to say? And sure, Hotel gets a cool spring-reverb sound out of his guitar/amp combo, but can he even play? Even those not usually concerned with technique might find themselves impatient when the pattern established by such tedious and clumsy filler tracks like “Kissy Kissy”, (where the two of them repeat the phrase “It’s been a long time coming” over and over again on top of the most pedestrian blues riffing this side of Jon Spencer) and “Fried My Little Brains” (ditto, except the title phrase is repeated) becomes the norm for the album. A listener might think for a moment that something elemental and challenging is going on, that perhaps the listener doesn’t quite understand on the first listen, but hearing the record more yields nothing but further frustration, and the growing sense that the Kills are trying to dupe and confound us with so much attitude that we will be afraid to criticize their plodding, unimaginative music.
Their refusal to stock their songs with more than rudimentary changes seems more like stubbornness or incompetence than determined adherence to their artistic purpose. Unlike someone like Cat Power, the Kills make the least of their limitations—rather than magnifying the importance of each choice, the simplicity of the Kills reveals how little thought went into any choice. Put on any of Cat Power’s albums after listening to Keep on Your Mean Side, and it becomes immediately clear how silly and shallow the Kills are at this point. The Kills want to come across like the sludgy dope-rockers Royal Trux, whose heroin addiction was so palpable in the grooves of their records that they should never be played in rehab centers. But in fact the Kills are much more like a My Life with the Thrill Kill Kult for the garage-blues revivalist set, sharing that leaden and overrated band’s strategy of suffusing their music with enough surly mugging and gratuitous obscenity (cf. “Black Rooster”, which repeats line “You want to fuck and fight in the basement” ad nauseum, or the self-explanatory “Fuck the People”) to distract listeners from their utter lack of substance.
Clearly the Kills take inspiration from blues masters like John Lee Hooker, who himself treads a fine line between being mesmerizing and being excruciatingly boring. But blues geniuses achieve some kind of climactic apotheosis from their relentless repetition; what seemed simple and self-evident marvelously flowers into something richly complex; the refrains take on additional resonance and significance with each utterance, allowing listeners to hear new meanings and detect new shades of emotion with each phrasing. But no such additional shades of meaning are possible for cliches like “The monkey on my back makes me talk like that”, and the aforementioned “Hey, fuck the people”—these only grow more hackneyed and trivial the more we are hammered by them.
Of course, those without the patience or imagination to enjoy authentic blues music (real effort is required to close the cultural and temporal gaps inherent in blues, whereas many rock fans equate entertainment with effortless enjoyment) might find the Kills a satisfying facsimile: one can easily digest the empty calories of their greasy, ersatz-down-home fare. And perhaps, when the Kills are through posturing, they will deliver an album that makes good on the promise of the raw materials they are working with.