Get out your blacks, ‘cos there’s a funeral going on.
In this bleak digital age, one of rock’s grandest traditions is, sadly, going the way of the cassingle: the B-side is on its death bed. As the modern day music market continues to gradually become more singles-oriented, the CD single is gradually dying, and, with it, the infinite possibilities that a band could explore with its B-sides. Back in the ’90s hey-day of rock, artists would often try and entice buyers with new songs that were only available as B-sides, and more often than not they were top-notch cuts that were just too wild or experimental to fit on a major label’s idea of what a “commercial album” should sound like. B-sides fared well in the U.S., but in Britain, it was a craze. Groups like Suede and Oasis would continually release B-sides that were as good, if not better, than their radio single brethren. In fact, one of Oasis’ best all-time albums remains 1998’s The Masterplan, which was nothing more than a collection of their best flipside material. Of course, 1998 and 2007 are two very different times, and in the age of iTunes bonus EPs, it should only be natural that one of the last major-label B-sides/rarities compilations that we’ll see for a while comes from a band whose very image borders on gratuitous excess: Las Vegas’ own synth-rock troubadours, The Killers.
Of course, when a critic is mentioning the Killers, they are actually referring to domineering frontman Brandon Flowers, who draws the most praise/ire for the band. Despite the fact that the band does genuinely write all of their songs together, Flowers always snags the spotlight for both his showboating antics and his monstrous ego (as best evidenced by his infamous quote in regards to their sophomore album being “one of the best albums in the past 20 years”). Yet, for being the critical whipping boys that they are, it’s often easy to overlook the fact that the Killers’ can write some amazing pop songs. Tracks like “Mr. Brightside” and “When You Were Young” were hits for good reason: they were structured and executed like they were timeless rock numbers (which, arguably, they were). Of course, when thrown into a track sequencing that featured remarkably inferior songs like “Bones”, “Midnight Show”, and the terribly-titled “Bling (Confession of a King)”, many noted how Flowers’ bark was worse than his bite. This was a band that relies heavily on the drama that their frontman brings to their songs, and when it works (as on “When You Were Young”), it’s extraordinary. When it fails, it’s almost laughably bad.
Unlike The Masterplan, the Killers’ Sawdust genuinely feels like a slapped-together collection of odds-and-ends. It rambles haphazardly from track to track without much of a sense of flow. Yet, in many ways, it was designed as such. After all, if there are any fans who went out and bought the 2005 Limited Edition version of Hot Fuss, then you already have three of these “rarities”: “Under the Gun”, “The Ballad of Michael Valentine”, and “Glamorous Indie Rock & Roll” (the latter of which substituted “Midnight Show” on the British release of Hot Fuss). Even though we may lament the death of the B-side, the digital music revolution is at least letting us cherry-pick our favorite songs off of certain albums, allowing us to avoid the pitfall of buying the same thing twice (which, invariably, is a hazard with Sawdust). Furthermore, this album doesn’t even contain all of the Killers’ B-sides, as notable tracks such as “Get Trashed” (the excellent B-side to “Smile Like You Mean It”) and “Change Your Mind” (the flip-song to the “Mr. Brightside” Part One single) somehow get lost in the shuffle .
Yet perhaps the largest fault with Sawdust is simply how the music contained within is remarkably average. Songs like “Daddy’s Eyes” (from the Bones EP) and “Who Let You Go?” (B-side to “Mr. Brightside”) are remarkably half-baked, despite being painted in a fresh coat of studio polish. “Sweet Talk” (a reject from the Sam’s Town sessions) is certainly serviceable, but it doesn’t hold a candle to the lush FM balladry of tracks like “Read My Mind”. Even the “Abbey Road” version of “Sam’s Town” (which replaces that song’s heavy synths with a good ol’ fashioned acoustic piano) succumbs to Flower’s total disregard for subtlety, still holding his voice like he’s the star of your high school’s production of Les Miserables. The two new tracks featured here — a cover of Joy Division’s “Shadowplay” for the Control soundtrack and a Lou Reed duet called “Tranquilize” — are largely forgettable.
But as to be expected with discs of this nature, there are some genuine highlights to be found amidst the sea of unintentional mediocrity. “All the Pretty Faces”, the B-side to “When You Were Young”, is easily the group’s most successful attempt at full-on hard-rock, coming off like a dark rewrite of “Somebody Told Me”. The Spider-Man 3 soundtrack contribution “Move Away” masterfully (and appropriately) captures Flowers’ flare for the theatrical, based off one of guitarist Dave Keuning’s fiercest and most propulsive riffs. Yet, the big surprise is how well the band succeeds when they tone things down, particularly with their other cover songs. “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town” is a remarkably faithful adaptation of the First Edition song of the same name, and their take on Dire Straits’ classic “Romeo & Juliet” works simply because the band keeps it amazingly low-key (though why Flowers’ decides to pull a Lou Reed impression here is somewhat inexplicable). “Leave the Bourbon On the Shelf” and “Glamorous Indie Rock & Roll” remain grade-A album rejects, and Jacques Lu Cont’s better-than-it-should-be remix of “Mr. Brightside” serves as nice if unremarkable closer to this somewhat even-handed compilation.
When all is said and done, the Killers are modern-day singles band. As much as Brandon Flowers & co. would like to be remembered for their full-length efforts, their radio hits will ultimately define their legacy. Sawdust is an interesting look at other aspects of the Killers’ sound, but as a standalone disc, it’s largely hit-or-miss. If anything, the death of the B-side may lead to the Killers’ to rethink their recording approach, saving their more adventurous and interesting ideas for their LPs instead of being sold off as Circuit City Exclusive bonus tracks. Perhaps they’ll stop living in a world of gratuitous excess and instead begin focusing their energies towards focused, solid tracks… though judging by the fact that a new non-album CD single called “Santa Don’t Shoot Me” came out the same week that this review was published, it feels like that day will come later than sooner.