[5 April 2011]
It’s sometimes a pain to rehearse a band’s whole career when they have a new album out, but Blood Pressures comes at a crucial enough juncture in the Kills’ brief discography that we can’t really avoid it. The first two records, while good, can be dispensed with fairly quickly. Keep on Your Mean Side and No Wow are solid and occasionally great (especially the latter), but they mostly sound a little cool, a little removed. While the Kills were always more interesting than common early comparison the White Stripes, their early work is the closest they would come to a Jack White-style fetishization of the past, both sonically and thematically. Even then, a song like No Wow’s “Rodeo Town” possesses more emotional depth and complexity than White’s pastiches (intentional and otherwise).
It’s 2008’s Midnight Boom, however, that finally showed the Kills pulling themselves up by their bootstraps and fulfilling their potential. They did so using a rather odd mix of influences and sounds. From the absolutely filthy, post-Stooges guitar tone to the jumprope-rhyme lyrics and rhythms to the cracked-open percussion to the songs’ pungent mix of contempt and ache, the whole album is sparse, nasty, and deliciously ersatz. It’s as if Alison Mossheart and Jamie Hince internalized all of their press, good and bad, and pumped out a sound that represented both the most hyperbolic praise and the most glancing slights they’d gotten. They even managed to channel a yearning that their earlier work hadn’t quite hit. Very few albums as sharp and brutal as Midnight Boom include a song as outright moving as “Last Day of Magic”. In the wake of their trim, malicious masterpiece, the Kills’ earlier work suddenly seemed a bit lacking.
Given that one of the best things about Midnight Boom was its wiry, tensile bare-bones strength, the Kills’ announcement that Blood Pressures was to be a bit more maximalist raised some red flags. But the important thing about this album is that it’s not a retreat from the strengths of the last album so much as a melding of those strengths with the better parts of the Kills’ earlier work. That melding is clearly still a work somewhat in progress; a few of the songs here, especially near the end of the album, are only as good as some of the better tracks from No Wow. The sound is certainly more conventional than Midnight Boom’s, filled with the band’s traditional (but still largely satisfying) mix of drum machine, singsong vocals, and fuzz guitar. However, they’re still exploring new avenues. The low-slung organ vamp slouching along beneath the surface of “Satellite” might be the most successful addition (not to mention the wordless chorus’ tip of the hat to the Congos’ “Fisherman”), although Hince’s brief, sleepy music hall interlude “Wild Charms” and “The Last Goodbye” (which sees Mossheart finally get the proper torch song her voice has practically been begging for) both acquit themselves well. And for lovers of Midnight Boom, several of the songs here use a rather amazing beat that sounds halfway between someone clapping and a ping pong ball hitting a wall.
If the band mostly sticks the landing or even improves when it comes to their sound, the tone and depth of Blood Pressures continues the breakthrough they made on Midnight Boom. “Future Starts Slow” starts the album with a clomping drum break and some pointillist guitar, but the real key to the song is the resigned, bruised acceptance when they sing “You can holler, you can wail, you can blow what’s left of my right mind.” “Heart Is a Beating Drum” is just as nervy and unsettled as the title indicates. “DNA” and “Nail in My Coffin” are defiantly alive in ways this band has never quite managed before. And in lesser hands, the spare, rambling kiss-off “Pots and Pans” would just sound bitchy or contemptuous; in Mossheart and Hince’s, it displays a complicated kind of regret along with its disdain.
So, while Blood Pressures isn’t quite as singular or great an album as Midnight Boom is, it does show that the latter record wasn’t a fluke, wasn’t the kind of classic that a minor band can almost stumble upon once in a career. For a duo whose sound seemed almost hermetically sealed and circumscribed at first, here the Kills prove again that they have breadth and depth far beyond what early listeners might have assumed. For maybe the first time in their career, the Kills seem capable of not just one classic album, but many.