The Kills - Keep On Your Mean Side
There's a depressing tendency to compare The Kills to The White Stripes and, while there are certain similarities between the two, The Kills are a very different beast. There are two of them, one male and one female and they like to record on vintage/old equipment, but that's where the similarities end. The White Stripes, talented though they may be, can't help but come across as a cuddly novelty band regurgitating the blues sound for an audience not used to hearing garage punk rock. The red and white image gave them a marketing hook and the rest was history. The Kills, on the other hand, are the mean, dark underbelly of the blues. Stripped down rock 'n' roll with a downright nasty edge. You can't imagine the White Stripes singing a song like Fuck The People let alone sound as though they meant the sentiment.
To be fair, there's nothing radical or new about The Kills, but that would be to miss the point. There's nothing in the world that sounds dirtier or sexier than a heavily distorted electric guitar, cranked up to eleven, and churning out slow, deliberate riffs that tumble from your speakers and fuck with your head, and that's exactly what The Kills provide. Their use of drum machine, rather than drummer, provides a surreal, almost dance-like quality to their songs, no better illustrated than on the opening track Superstition where the main riff is simply played over and over again, with slight variations, with a stuttering drum beat repeating ad nauseum behind it.
The Kills have an almost tribal sound, helped in part by that drum machine. The ponderous nature of Full AU, with it's simple, driving, two-chord riff has an ethereal feel to it and it sounds like nothing else on earth. Elsewhere, rock 'n' blues influences abound and that's R'n'B as practiced by the likes of Lead Belly in case there's any confusion of terms here. Kissy Kissy and Monkey 23 are wonderfully laid back affairs, the drum machine keeping simple time with jangly, tinny delta-blues guitar riffs sprinkled over the top, occasionally degenerating into the muddy, distorted noise that you'll find elsewhere. Fried My Little Brains combines the two styles magnificently and is another that sounds dance influenced, with upbeat tempo and repetitive beat. 'Repetitive' here is meant as a compliment; If something sounds good, do it over and over again, and it'll sound even better. That's a philosophy that's endemic on this album.
There's something real and vital about The Kills. To listen to a line like "Want to fuck and fight in the basement" from Black Rooster is to feel dirty and low-down and it's a quality they're very good at - the act of transference of feeling from the artist to the listener. As we've seen, the songs themselves are not complicated affairs, but there's a real sense of something hidden under the music, some dark vibe that was present during the recording and now duplicated in the comfort of your own home. This is in part helped by the vocal delivery. Mostly sung by VV, the female half of The Kills, she has an unearthly, haunting, desperate tone that cannot be faked. Listen to the chanted delivery of the line "You got it/I want it" from Cat Claw for proof, or the mocking sarcasm of "Fuck the people" from the song of that name.
Keep On Your Mean Side is a stunning debut, and one of the stand out releases from 2003. There's a timeless feeling to the recording and you get the feeling that it'll still be listened to in ten years time and it will have lost none of it's edge or dated in any way. With some new material hopefully on the way in 2004, let's hope The Kills don't mess it up.