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The Kills - Keep On Your Mean Side

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Artist: The Kills

Album: Keep On Your Mean Side

Label: Rough Trade / World's Fair

Review date: May. 13, 2003

Emaciated Immediacy

Before putting out their first album, The Kills were hard at work touring, writing and rewriting their self-mythology. The band’s two members, Alison Mosshart and Jamie Hince, claim that The Kills originated as a pen pal correspondence between the two of them. Alison was living in Florida, Jamie in London and the two of them would send tapes back and forth, adding musical tidbits with their ancient 4-track recorders. Then she moved to London, where the two of them lived a down-and-out, Sid and Nancy-like existence. During this period they managed to record their Black Rooster EP, got some press and went back to the States for a self-funded summer tour. Oh yeah, along the way Alison began calling herself VV and Jamie became Hotel.

While Black Rooster got them write-ups, their live shows gained them fans and, it’s safe to say, scared some people. On stage it’s just the two of them, with a black, HAL like drum machine centered in the stage. This drum machine is a rock – it is the source of stability for both the songs and the two performers. It usually starts the song, providing the beat and more importantly, an end. During each number VV and Hotel switch off vocals, play lean, kicked-up blues riffs and generally convulse, falling into each other, onto the ground and, in one show, off to the side where VV promptly vomited and then returned center stage. One worries that if this drum machine would, say, malfunction, the two of them wouldn’t be able to stop pounding their guitars and would die like the flapping trout in a fisherman’s boat.

It’s these live shows that have gained them a supporting spot with Britain’s ageless Primal Scream and also got them signed to the esteemed labels Rough Trade and Domino. Now The Kills are presenting their first full length Keep On Your Mean Side with a decent amount of fan fare, especially from rock revisionalist British press like NME.

Many of The Kills songs have a lo-fi authenticity to them that feels like they’re ripped from Robert Johnson, amplified to become a riff from a vintage Stones’ song, and then stripped of any extraneous production. Often armed with just two guitars, VV and Hotel switch off lyrics and ride the drum machine, Keep On Your Mean Side has a number of tracks that run over the four minute mark, which is surprising for a band with such limited resources. The Kills’ songs are only as good as their riffs, and some songs could become tiresome after two minutes of repetition. Luckily, it’s the sparse guitar flourishes, purportedly developed over the months of correspondence between the two, that keeps many the songs rocking to completion.

The band’s third member, the unnamed drum machine opens Keep On Your Mean Side with a flutter of beats. The song “Superstition” has VV singing about said title and original sin and some other stuff that I can’t quite make out. While the song reeks of promise (cool riff, great vocal delivery), “Superstition” never reaches the heights it should and is more of a whimper than one would wish. The following track “Cat’s Claw” showcases the real Kills. The peak is reached within thirty seconds, the drums are real and the result is simply a wonderfully crafted pop song. The chorus, which is VV repeating “You got it. I want it” for three quarters of the three minute song captures the entire essence of The Kills: find something catchy and run with it. The guitars rarely stray from their initial path, the vocals usually consist of three or four lines.

The Kills have inserted three diversions from their normal riff/rock tracks on Keep On Your Mean Side. The first, “Kissy Kissy” is a bluesy number, and the longest ones on the record. “Kissy Kissy” sounds like a classic Delta Blues number electrified, and unlike the rest of the album, it has a dreamy, patient and almost psychedelic quality to it that suggests a more contemplative side to the musicians. Elsewhere, the down tempo melancholy of “Chicken 23” and the acoustic finale “Gypsy Death and You” are two highlights amid the album’s homogeny. The latter sounds as authentic as The Kills’ produced image gets, like a post gig number played to each other before falling asleep on the backstage couch. These three tracks seem thrown in out of necessity, adding a little diversity to an album as homogenized as a liberal arts school in Maine.

The worst that can be said for Keep On Your Mean Side is that it doesn’t have an ounce of originality and the band’s two members take themselves very seriously. The playfulness of The White Stripes has kept them around and evolving over the course of four fine albums. The somber and serious tone of The Kills, however, make you worry that they’ve painted themselves into a corner and will be unable move from their present position. No doubt, Keep On Your Mean Side is not the album that will grow on you. It arrives in full bloom, everything immediate. Many will understandably bore of it quickly, for there’s nothing to new to discover after repeat listenings. Yet, it contains enough rock solid tracks to make it recommendable to fans of the genre.

By Addison MacDonald

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