Decadent, sullen and minimal, the Kills have always been a band seemingly out-of-sorts with the industry they’ve chosen. Their ragged garage blues and photobooth posing suggest an art installation or some conceptual burst of freedom in an underground movie, not the austere album/tour order of the music business.
The music is as raw as their image, cheekbone-sharp guitars and death black hair. And interestingly for a band that seems to exist in duotone — they have always advocated the artistry of their photography alongside the music — first impressions are of a band devoid of colour, stripped down to it’s bare necessities: vocals, guitar, drum machine. And yet with every Kills release you soon realise how deceiving their minimalist image is. Alison Mosshart and Jamie Hince’s refusal to follow the rules and ditch the drums and bass does more than guarantee any income is split a clean 50-50. Subtle multi-tracking and inventive use of that sparse drum machine ensures the Kills have more layers waiting to be stripped away than most bands who rely on the usual drum/bass rhythm section. The resulting sound is visceral, subversive and immediate.
Midnight Boom is the Kills third full-length release, coming three years after No Wow and Keep on Your Mean Side, from 2003. When they first emerged, carving out a niche for themselves with a distinct style and sound that knowingly referenced other artists such as Velvet Underground, Patti Smith and PJ Harvey, the Kills were joyously welcomed and both records were well received. For a band who limit themselves in their choice of instruments and now on their third album, you might ask how they can progress. The answer is an album which shows a maturity that defies its limitations, yet crucially doesn’t dispel with the rich swagger and sass that gives the Kills their intensity.
It’s a brave band who open a record with 12 seconds of hushed dial tone. Over those initial seconds comes the eager tapping of numbers. It’s unclear who’s calling who but that dial tone soon builds into the effortless beat of “U.R.A. Fever”, an immediate sexual sway of a song, dripping with the Kills typically-subversive chemistry. Mosshart and Hince taunt each other with “You only ever had her when you had a fever” while discordant guitars lash violently at the pace of the song. It’s clear that the Kills have lost none of that raw tension, but it’s also interesting to note the difference drafting in producer Alex Epton (Armani XXXchange from genre-blending sleaze merchants Spank Rock) has made to the Kills sound.
Crucially Epton hasn’t pulled-out his usual record chainsaw and torn apart the Kills sound. Brought in for additional production, the Kills have drawn on Epton’s beat-making skills to add extra texture to the drumbeats. The result is more character, more intensity, and it’s beautiful. “Last Day of Magic” slides along on a cool-ass beat and a whispering backwards hi-hat, Mosshart sounding like Peaches at her most temptress, the Kills spitting out more and more erotic charge with every bar. While the fabulous “Sour Cherry” with its “I’m the only sour cherry on your fruit stand” line and tongue-in-cheek swagger, seemingly exploits what sounds like the under-used rhythmic qualities of chopsticks.
The atmosphere here is strung tight, hinting at the sexual energy Mosshart and Hince give off onstage. But the Kills are also a group that understand the Tom Waits vintage of beauty in melancholy. So yes, they’re all hip and sass at the best times, but they also know how to claw at your heart strings.
Nowhere is this more evident than on the haunting “Black Balloon”, a classic Kills ballad that begins by recalling the dry blues of “Rodeo Town” from No Wow. “You can hold on but I wouldn’t waste your time / Farewell my black balloon,” coos Mosshart. The song’s already lighter than air when half-way Mosshart breaks into an ethereal “aaah-aaah-aaah”, and the song lifts skyward along with said balloon, Mosshart calling out after it, suggesting some latent erotic union: “Farewell my black balloon / Let the weather have its way with you.”
Elsewhere Midnight Boom is such a ride. “Cheap and Cheerful”, “Getting Down” and “What New York Used to Be” all bounce along with vigour that makes the album such a joy. It feels free and rebellious, driven on an urgency and playfulness that evokes Jean Belmondo‘s character in Godard‘s À Bout de Souffle. In fact, the jump-cuts, bold energy and fresh tale of modern urban life of À Bout de Souffle make it a perfect celluloid sibling for the Kills.
The Kills talk much about the influence of art and film on their music. Hince and Mosshart have said they drew inspiration for Midnight Boom from a 1960s documentary, Pizza Pizza Daddy-O, about the playground rhymes of inner city American children. “We just started building rhythms around those and had this concept of coming up with modern-day playground songs,” Hince told Domino Records. “Cos they’re really quite dark. Cutting people’s thumbs off, kicking people in the face, throwing ‘em down stairs. I kinda liked it. So I got this old MPC-60 hip hop drum sequencer and just started making rhythms on that. And these playground songs ended up as Midnight Boom.”
Fed to the skewed guitar and beats, the influence of these ghostly patty-cake rhymes from 40 years ago litter Midnight Boom, from the gorgeous drive of “Tape Song” to the art-punk of “Alphabet Pony”. And they make perfect sense, shaping the record’s consistency and adding to the Kills’ extremely infectious build.
The Kills bleed cool and it runs darker and cooler than ever before on Midnight Boom. They’re a soundtrack waiting for a road movie; If they didn’t exist you can guarantee they’d turn up in a David Lynch film somewhere, busking on the side of a distant highway under lonely neon and a half-moon.
Midnight Boom finishes with “Goodnight Bad Morning”, a song so full of early-morning melancholy it rivals even the Velvet Underground’s “Sunday Morning” for sheer crow-black blues. Over a rocking-chair beat and soft-strum of acoustic guitar Mosshart and Hince whisper “….See it in everyone / Like a lost idea under lightbulb sun / Your eyes ready for take-off melt in your head / What a beautiful state we’re in.” It is a song that could have been the highlight on any Mazzy Star or Leonard Cohen album but it closes the Kills most remarkable record to date, staying with you long after it ends, Hince’s slow humming still resonating in your senses, the cold shiver still working it’s way down your spine.