The Kills: “Blood Pressures”

I hate to go all conspiracy theorist right off the bat, but there’s a part of me that suspects very strongly that this whole thing was very carefully staged. I mean, think about it: The White Stripes announce that they’ve disbanded, close to four years after their last batch of new music– one wonders if they could have made the proclamation much earlier, or basically at any point since summer 2007– and then, not two months later, The Kills swoop in with a dynamite new record that scratches a White Stripes, rock-and-roll itch that I, for one, didn’t even realize I had. If Allison Mosshart and her old pal Jack White put these wheels in motion to position The Kills as the new White Stripes, well, I say more power to them; it’s not going to work, of course– there will only ever be one White Stripes– but I appreciate the initiative, and besides, we got a return to The Kills that totally jams, so what’s there to complain about?

And if it’s just a happy coincidence, well, in that case, I hope Mosshart at least had the forethought to send the single “Satellite” Jack’s way, if only because I can imagine him listening to it and grinning from ear to ear. It’s a terrific little song, one of their best, with a monstrous lurch of a rhythm and a sinister ‘n’ seedy guitar riff that I might liken to Elephant if it didn’t sound slightly more like Dead Weather. Jack might even be a bit jealous at how great of a pop writer Mosshart can be; “Satellite” has a hook that won’t quit and a build-up of vocal harmonies that makes the whole thing stick. Just brilliant all the way around.

If I can suggest it, though– and really, I do hate to keep up the Jack White comparisons; Mosshart and her bandmate Jamie Hince really are doing their own thing here, even if, as a vocalist, she’s been sounding more and more like Jack ever since they started working together, something that certainly holds true here– Blood Pressures is less a blues-rocker in the White Stripes vein than it is a slice of gothic proto-punk along the lines of The Dead Weather’s Sea of Cowards. And really, that’s territory that’s belonged to Mosshart all along; she and Hince have been making sleazy, underbelly blues ever since they got together, taking all the broken glass and smeared lipstick of the best punk but leaving its sense of mischievous anarchy. Their music slinks where The White Stripes’ thumps– truly, the difference in drummers is night and day– and they tinker with melodrama in a manner that could, in the hands of two hacks, be pure camp.

But if anything, their music has always tended toward the opposite extreme. At times The Kills make dirty-ass garage rock rather joylessly, which seems almost like a contradiction in terms. At those moments, their melodramatic tendencies come across as rather wearying. On Blood Pressures, though, the songs aren’t burdensome so much as they’re romantic, in a pained sort of way; it sounds to me like Mosshart and Hince are playing from the gut more than ever before, and what’s more, it sounds like they’re having a great time of it. I don’t know how else to explain the way they turn “Nail in My Coffin” into such a devilishly gleeful, morbidly defiant sing-along, or how they can show off their sense of humor without ever breaking character in the old-timey piano number “Wild Charms.”

Actually, if anything, their unwillingness to break character highlights another key distinction between them and The White Stripes; for all his color-coded formal rigidity Jack White was always quite varied as a songwriter, and might have turned something like Mosshart’s “The Last Goodbye” into a warm, McCartney-styled ballad. Here, it’s done as a cold, somber piano piece, a break from the more rock-oriented songs in terms of its style but not in terms of its feel. But I won’t hold it against them: In another sense, they’ve bested even the wonderful Sea of Cowards by capturing that record’s after-hours, hotel lounge seediness and sustaining it over the course of an album while also delivering a finer batch of stand-alone songs.

To that end: I’ve mentioned how much I love “Satellite” and “Nail in My Coffin,” but would also add “The Heart is a Beating Drum” to the list; Hince brings the shake and pop and general level of mayhem while Mosshart– in another startlingly hooky, sing-along chorus– turns in a rock diva performance worthy of Chrissie Hynde. “DNA,” meanwhile, is sort of a slow-burning blues groove by way of an industrial grind, and it’s hypnotic in its effect. “Damned if She Do” just might be the sleaziest little crawl these guys have ever come up with, but I’ll be damned if it isn’t strangely addicting. And album closer “Pots and Pans”? It’s a semi-acoustic, semi-comedic, and totally bizarre little blues ballad that, yes, I dare say Jack White would think is a real hoot.

I, on the other hand, think this whole record is pretty terrific, and not because I hear The Kills picking up where The White Stripes left off, but because I hear them coming into their own– and sounding like they’re really enjoying it. Blood Pressures may be jet black on the surface, but just below it proves itself to be a stompin’ and hollerin’ good time, a rock record where the surface pleasures are significant but the real thrill is simply in hearing a great band write, play, and sing their hearts out.

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