Driving the Bandwagon
I’ll tell you one thing right now: I hate bandwagons! They’re crowded, the seats are always uncomfortable, and you frequently end up looking bloody foolish for ever jumping on in the first place. (Just ask all those egg-on-their-face critics who did their best to turn The Strokes into the next Beatles.) Lately it seems like every time a band hits the scene with a boy who wears a skinny tie or a girl who jumps around as if Wendy O. Williams didn’t do it better and first, the wagon starts carrying around more than its recommended weight, as if music critics somehow get blinded by the presence and persona of these bands (who are always, it seems, from either England or New York), and subsequently lose all ability to rationally evaluate records. It’s a sign of dangerous times when critics start to believe other critics. Maybe that’s why the proverbial bandwagon’s tires so frequently go flat.
So it is with a great deal of personal trepidation that I announce, publicly and in print, that I, Susan Glen, really like The Kills, and I love their new album. I officially reserve my seat on the bandwagon, throw in my hat (or white towel, whichever seems more appropriate), and resign my title of Bitchy Critic Who At Least Sorta Hates Everything. I suppose I would be a much cooler person if I simply refused to love a band you can dance to, or wouldn’t dream of lowering my standards enough to listen to any band you have ever heard of. But I guess I’m just not that cool, because The Kills had me at hello.
No Wow starts with its title track, a brilliantly constructed little piece that sounds like the end result of a very young Al Joergensen fucking a few well-chosen smurfs and coming up with a cross between “Effigy”-era Ministry and The Blue Men Group, with Smurfette on lead vocals. There’s a constant driving beat to “No Wow” that hints at the very best of early industrial music, with a healthy dose of Joy Division tossed in, without ever jumping headfirst into the melodrama of either: it’s got all the basement satisfaction with none of the suicide or eyeliner. But No Wow is lighter than industrial. It’s also more sparse than most electronica. And this might be why I’m so impressed with The Kills: they manage to create a warm sound with so little. Their 2003 full-length debut Keep on Your Mean Side earned attention for its sparseness, but No Wow has stripped it down even further still. That said, it doesn’t feel like an empty album. It’s a rare sign of restraint when an artist can realize that less is sometimes more, and that there’s no more sure-fire way to destroy a song than to over-produce it. The Kills don’t even come close, and they come out all the better for it.
Alison Mosshart and Jamie Hince also manage, with “No Wow”, to lay out their philosophy of love quite clearly, when Mosshart sings, “You’re gonna have to step over my dead body before you walk out that door.” It’s a theme that runs consistently through No Wow, which features not one but two songs called “I Hate the Way You Love”, as well as “Love is a Deserter”, a song that’s catchiest line is “get the guns out”. Indeed, these are not love songs by anybody’s traditional standards (except maybe Nick Cave or The Magnetic Fields). Then again, this isn’t electronic pop by anybody’s traditional standards, either, except maybe Kathleen Hanna.
“No Wow” is definitely the best song on its namesake album, but it’s not as though The Kills completely shoot their wad in the first five minutes. Quite the contrary, they have a resevoir full of almost ridiculously catchy songs. But more surprisingly, Mosshart has an equally full bag of voices in her back pocket. On “Dead Road 7”, she introduces a sexy and dangerous hybrid of PJ Harvey and Madigan Shive. And on “I Hate the Way You Love”, Mosshart uses a weird Gwen Stefani baby girl inflection that sounds creepy in Mosshart’s resonating voice, as opposed to just silly and slightly annoying in Stefani’s. There are very few vocalists who seem to truly understand their voice as independent instruments, and Mosshart is clearly one of them.
The bulk of No Wow is filled with the same dizzy and driving electronic beats that fuel its stand-out tracks, including “At the Back of the Shell”, a song that not only features some of the most deliriously creepy guitar distortion since Robert Smith first played guitar for Siouxsie & the Banshees, but also successfully traverses the dangerous Land of the Hand Clap, territory reserved for only the bravest of all self-referential bitch-slappers. Maybe this is why the success of “Rodeo Town” is so significant. “Rodeo Town”, falling near the end of No Wow is unlike anything else on the album. It’s a complete departure from The Kills’ electronic sound, with more traditional instrumentation and a more traditional arrangement. In fact, “Rodeo Town” could actually pass for a Lucinda Williams cover if it was just a bit slower and a lot smokier. It’s a credit to The Kills’ creativity and musicianship that they can be equally convincing in two radically different styles. Likewise, the last track on the album, “Ticket Man”, is a very gutsy ending to a driving album, eerily subdued and nearly silent. Featuring just three piano notes, Mosshart’s clear and present voice, and the most minimal of kick drums, “Ticket Man” is proof that sometimes the most powerful crescendo is simple silence. It’s a stunning achievement that most wouldn’t even try, let alone accomplish.
For all this, there area few moments on No Wow that make me think that The Kills may take themselves just a bit too seriously. The media static that precedes “Love Is a Deserter” comes off as a snotty pop culture condemnation that dangerously suggests the word “artiste” (not to mention Rhythm Nation-era Janet Jackson), and the fact that Mosshart and multi-instrumentalist Hince have named themselves “VV” and “Hotel”, respectively, conjures up a few too many images of black berets and clove cigarettes for my comfort. Still, despite the pretentiousness and a bit of a drag in the middle, No Wow is a very smart, very engaging album. It picks up where nobody left off, and for that reason alone, I’m not too worried, or ashamed, about reserving a seat on the bandwagon. In fact, if the Kills continue on their current trajectory, by their next release, I might even offer to drive.