It’s equal parts astounding and impressive that The Kills have been around for 15 years. For a band formed on the perilous dynamic of Alison Mosshart’s wildly frenetic, outsized vocalist and Jamie Hince’s ultra-cool, blues-indebted guitar work, one can envision a world where they burn out quickly over two or three impressive records then leave behind a beautiful corpse. Thankfully they’re smarter than that, and their longevity can be credited, at least in part, to their commitment to evolution while still maintaining the core tenets of their sound. No two Kills records sound the same, but you also wouldn’t think any of them were made by a different band.
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A big welcome back to The Kills. It has been three years since their last record “Midnight Boom”, and while it certainly seems like a normal gap between albums, a lot has happened to the duo since then. Okay, well maybe not so much to Jamie Hince. He’s been spending a lot of time developing his relationship with supermodel Kate Moss to the point where they’ll be getting married in the near future. But running away from the paparazzi is work in and of itself, so that gives him something to do. Alison Mosshart is the real go-getter, joining up with Jack White and his motley band of dudes as frontwoman for The Dead Weather. They certainly attracted more attention than The Kills ever have, and they made not just one, but two albums and did lengthy tours to support each. At their rate of production, it wouldn’t have been surprising if The Dead Weather became a main project for all the members involved, leaving any other groups in the dust. Jack White is never content to sit in one place for too long though, and while there’s no apparent new Raconteurs record on the horizon, he’s got Third Man Records to run in the meantime. So Mosshart is free to do her own thing and her Kills bandmate Hince could probably use some extra cash to help pay for his wedding. They got together in Michigan, brought back the good old “Midnight Boom” production team, and recorded their fourth long player “Blood Pressures”.
The first 15 seconds of opening cut “Future Starts Slow” is exclusively drums of the loud and booming kind, something you wouldn’t normally hear from The Kills given their lack of an actual drummer. They’ve always had beats, be they from a drum machine or in pre-recorded samples, but never quite so vivid or dominant. Once Hince’s guitar comes grinding in and he launches into a dual vocal with Mosshart though, things immediately feel familiar in that Kills sort of way. The dark, almost witchy guitar fuzz of “Satellite” is eerily reminiscent of The Dead Weather, to the point where if you replaced Hince’s backing vocals with Jack White’s there really would be no difference. By way of contrast, “Heart Is a Beating Drum” is very distinctly a Kills song, though it stretches capacity to allow for little elements that made each of their first three albums stand on their own. The choppy, glitchy nature of “Midnight Boom”, complete with skittering percussion, meets the bluesy elements of “No Wow” and “Keep On Your Mean Side”. Unlike those previous records though, Mosshart’s lead vocal is a sheer force unto itself, definitely proving she’s learned a thing or two about her own abilities while off on her side project adventure. Amid washes of reverb, “Nail in My Coffin” starts off at a pretty strong pace, and it only picks up more steam as it works into a frenzy towards its conclusion. It also boasts one of the catchiest choruses on the entire record, even if a bunch of “oh oh ohs” aren’t the most lyrically above board.
Things on “Blood Pressures” start to take a hit right around “Wild Charms”, a Jamie Hince-fronted ballad that sits smack dab in the middle of the record. It brings the album to a screeching halt, but spares us from true torture by having a running time of a mere 75 seconds. Hince isn’t a bad singer, he just can’t seem to muster up the same passion and intensity that his partner in crime does every time she gets a microphone in front of her. Just because the song is a slow ballad doesn’t mean it needs to be sung like you just don’t care. The way you sell sweeping and slow sadness is best exemplified on “The Last Goodbye”, in which Mosshart dives into a deep croon that’s more 1950s than anything else. For The Kills it’s completely atypical, made even more so by the muted piano and sweeping strings. Just being dropped down towards the end of the record on its own little island is fascinating enough, but as it’s preceeded by a couple mediocre tracks that push it to stand out that much more. Though it fails to actively fit in with everything else, it does very much show that The Kills can be successful on a number of different levels beyond just moody, minimalist blues rock. Speaking of which, the spiky “You Don’t Own the Road” brings back that familiar Kills style, with Mosshart audibly sneering as Hince claws away at his electric guitar trying to wrangle it in. The record ends on a higher point with “Pots and Pans”, a track that essentially mixes everything that came before it in a bowl and stirs it up, It’s a plodding number appropriate to close out any record, and the use of a dusty acoustic guitar, drum machine and some signature electric makes it just a touch more refined than most everything else. Call it a testament to the subtle progression of the band over these four albums.
Though it might like to be, “Blood Pressures” is not quite the best Kills record to date. Alison Mosshart and Jamie Hince do sound refreshed and excited to be back, but despite that most of the songs lack the pop edge of their previous effort “Midnight Boom”. While it is slower and less marketable overall, the small adjustments the duo have made are worthwhile and justify their continued existence, Mosshart’s vocals stand out more than ever, dropping the hint that maybe Hince should keep quiet just a little more next time. The increased reliance on percussion or percussive elements is intriguing as well, particularly in the first half of the album where it practically rules over the catchiest and best songs. Finally there’s the songwriting, which has picked up significantly since the last album. Prior to now, The Kills have used mantras to burrow into your brain. The nonstop repetition of the same lines in “URA Fever” or “Tape Song” were fine because they were backed by equally memorable melodies. There’s a whole lot of verse-chorus-verse all over “Blood Pressures”, and it makes you want to pay closer attention to what they’re actually singing about instead of simply falling back to a hook. Good for The Kills for taking that progressive and more intelligent stance. It doesn’t quite clear them of the near crime scene that occurs for a couple moments in the later part of the record, but it makes them less grisly. The Kills may not win over any new fans as a result of this new album (outside of the ones showing up on account of The Dead Weather), but for those of us already familiar with their previous efforts, there’s certainly enough promise here to keep us coming back so long as they’re still willing to throw it out there.
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Jack White is a music-making machine. He’s probably not taken a single day off in the last few years. Between The White Stripes and The Raconteurs and his newest project The Dead Weather, it’s been an endless cycle of touring and recording. Given that the new Dead Weather album comes out a mere 10 months after their debut “Horehound” and that it follows a tour supporting that record, both White and his bandmates’ commitment to this project is nothing short of impressive. Of course this band isn’t built around Jack White, even if he’s the one generating most of the attention. Alison Mosshart of The Kills technically leads this crew of misfits, and White sits back on drums while Jack Lawrence and Dean Fertita shred on guitar. In a band where the sound is largely influenced by classic rock and blues music, one could even argue that White’s role is the least important. At least the music doesn’t sound that way.
As an introduction to The Dead Weather, “Horehound” served as a great introduction to their sound and proved to be an even better showcase for Mosshart, who always seemed to maintain a semi-subdued state on past Kills albums. Now having to compete with writhing guitar riffs, she proved she could hold her own in the boys club and that resulted in a surprisingly solid, but not exactly jaw-droppingly great debut. On their new album “Sea of Cowards”, the pressure ramps up in dramatic fashion. The guitars are heavier and sharp as knives. Mosshart does backflips on her vocals that give the impression of a deeply tortured soul. All the while White acts almost as her foil, chirping in on backing vocals for a number of tracks, or simply trading/doubling up on verses and choruses for tracks like “Hustle and Cuss” and “I’m Mad”. White’s microphone presence has increased compared to “Horehound”, yet the focus on Mosshart is deeper and more established than ever and she claims the spotlight like it was invented for her.
Where the strength in the overall performance of these songs has increased, the actual tracks themselves are weaker than those on their debut. A few of the songs primarily on the second half of the album are purposely designed to blend into one another, and occasionally it makes for an additional challenge of figuring out exactly when that takes place. There’s also a number of more experimental arrangements this time around, most of which wind up being either distracting or turn a potentially good song into a flat one. Closing track “Old Mary” is, among other things, Jack White’s odd riff on the Catholic “Hail Mary” prayer, with slightly different wordplay that’s spoken for the first half and winds up on some strange semblance of an actual song for the second. Other times it’s an oddly placed keyboard that weaves through the track. And though the vocals may be generally impressive, Mosshart or White may take them in an ill-conceived direction that lessens the impact of a chorus or leaves a track with no impact at all. Still, there are a few songs that work like gangbusters from every angle. First single “Die By the Drop” is surprisingly good, as is opening track “Bad Blood Blues”. If all the tracks on the record were as good as those two, “Sea of Cowards” would be in much better shape.
The great news is that once you dig through the 35 minutes of sludge and non-traditional arrangements that “Sea of Cowards” has to offer, you’ll hopefully be happy with the end product. The small tweaks that have been made between this album and the last one both help and hinder matters on equal levels, so really things are neither better nor worse than they were going in. The tension and pace are amped up in an effective way, along with Mosshart’s singing, it’s just too bad the rest of the material isn’t quite there to fully support it. As a volatile mood piece though, this record clearly knows what it’s doing. Take from that what you will when trying to decide if “Sea of Cowards” is worth your time and money, but otherwise consider this a light recommendation.