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Meet the Kills: Delta Blues and Rock & Roll Filtered through Punk that is as Dark as Night
Back in 2002 after some encouragement from one of my college friends I finally checked out the band of the hour: The White Stripes. I was immediately hooked and more interested in the underground punk blues movement that was apparently taking place under my nose while I was listening to alternative metal and things called nu- something or other.
I never looked back and I found a number of good bands through the White Stripes like the Soledad Brothers, the Detroit Cobras, Mr. Airplane Man and the subject of this article: The Kills.
Made up of two very unique characters called "W" aka Alison Mosshart, and "Hotel"aka Jamie Hince, they are a duo much like the White Stripes in that one is male and one is female, their sound is stripped down and they play an interpretation of the blues. Listening to the two bands back to back though, they sound as different as day and night.
Formed after an exchange of tapes between Florida and London, the Kills definitely embody a minimalist form of music. Created using single guitar tracks drum loops and rough edged vocals, their tracks have an intensity, a realism and an authenticity that is almost scary and is awfully depressing. At times they sound like stripped down delta blues and other times like the Stooges resurrected, both from a pretty bleak viewpoint. With two albums and a third on the way, The Kills definitely represent a side of rock and blues that has not seen the light of the mainstream or even the light of day in a while.
The first song I ever heard by the Kills was a very punk influenced rocker called "Superstition" off their debut album Keep on Your Mean Side. It reminded me of the Stooges meets the Velvet Underground meets meets blues. Whatever that means. It has a very catchy, repetitive and aggressive guitar riff that builds up to a screeching primal scream chorus. My favorite song of their first album is a dark blues number called "Black Rooster." With a Son House-like intensity the pair let their gruff voices grind into the blues stomp guitar riffs and make for a great song. There second album, No Wow, has a similar feel to the first, but doesn't sound nearly as rough as the first to me. At the same time it feels far more sparse minimal and dark. There is also a slight 80s rock feel that comes from the drum machines and there is less blues on this album but that is not necessarily a bad thing My favorite song of the second album is a slow piano piece called "Ticket Man." A simple song with pretty simple lyrics that hints at blues and piano folk, but it is the intensity that makes it great.
Few if any of their songs are probably radio friendly but they're definitely catchy, raw and rough. They create a very thick sound with minimal tracks and instrumentation and I like the rough soulful edge on W's voice. Lyrically its about as dark as the blues can get but have an honesty and authenticity that sounds like its coming right out of a dirty flat (maybe in London). The kind lit only by bare light bulbs, and so filled up with cigarette smoke that looking in through the unwashed windows you can barely see the glimmer of lights on. These are definitely not happy songs and at times even border on depressing, but they are very gritty and real.
The only thing that bothers me about The Kills is their use of drum machine. I understand that it might be a necessity and it is certainly used in a way that fits the minimalist feel, but personally, I wish they'd ditch it for real drums. This may be why I find there first album to be my favorite as it has a slightly less electronic feel. My favorite song they do though is "Ticket Man" from their second album, so go figure.
The Kills are definitely not for everyone as their sound can be a little inaccessible if you're used to more polished or happier records. It took me a few listens before I could really wrap my brain around what these two were doing. It's almost like when I first listened to blues great Robert Johnson. The music is just so stripped down, bare, raw and honest that it is a little scary. At the same time The Kills are not really a blues band in the traditional sense and the punk side of things might also get in the way for some people.
Then again, if you're like me and you have Son House on the same shelf as the Stooges in your music collection, and the White Stripes on the next shelf down, check out the Kills. This band is a perfect example that music doesn't have to be complicated, polished or happy to be full of emotion and that often time those rough edges add the most character.
Here's a link to their website: http://www.thekills.tv. Keep an eye out for a new album soon as well and I'm going to see if I can send them an email with a request to post a media player so you can listen to the tracks I've mentioned.
References include: www.allmusic.com and my personal music collection.