Next year this decade will be over, and very few new bands have distinguished themselves either at the turnstiles or the cash register. Even one of the main ones that has, the Killers, chose to hit the theater circuit this winter after releasing its third album, Day & Age, instead of risking arenas - in most places, that is; about two weeks ago, the Vegas quartet and friends acquitted themselves at Madison Square Garden quite nicely.
In the provinces, for the moment, they're content with the 3,000-4,000-seater level, but only provincially: nobody else with as big a name is touring right now, so why not rally the faithful and remind the media? It's a good way to kill time until they headline Coachella in two months, if nothing else.
And promise, after Monday the next time Houston sees the Killers will be at Toyota Center (though it's uneven and the epitome of the "difficult third album," a couple of as-yet-unreleased D&A songs are ticking as we speak... new single "Spaceman" and heir apparent "Losing Touch") or, once again, at the Austin City Limits Festival. Coldplay has already come and gone, remember.
Think about it: bands that get a lot of radio play/press coverage nowadays are either critically spurned Walmart sales juggernauts (3 Doors Down, Nickelback) or niche-y Pitchfork darlings (Vampire Weekend, TV on the Radio), and the middle ground has been all but obliterated. Yet these four clean-cut Sin City kids, who can be every bit as kitschy (and unapologetically so) as Wayne Newton himself, have found that elusive third way.
They actually sell records - not in heaping amounts but, save Radiohead, more than any other act the typical Gorilla vs. Bear contributor will admit to having on their iPod. Furthermore, they can hold their own on KRBE alongside the likes of Colbie Caillat and Chris Brown. And yet no one - anywhere - wants to come out and give them credit.
Why is that? Well, they do sound a lot like U2 for a band whose wisp of a frontman, Brandon Flowers, can all but vanish during the set - maybe it's a Vegas thing - but when he wasn't melting into the sometimes overwhelming Empire Strikes Back-like scenery, Flowers is a born showman (even if his dancing on the monitors looked like it should have come with marionette strings), and his mates have the rock teeth to thwart anyone who wants to write them off as loungey derivatives. More importantly, at one hour and 45 minutes, the set still felt a little short. Festivals, here they come.
Day & Age's "Spaceman," which in one song reconciles the Killers' Eurotrash sweet tooth of 2004 debut Hot Fuss and Americana self-flagellation of '06 follow-up Sam's Town, opened, followed by the even more widescreen "Losing Touch," a song that prompted the following note: "It's amazing choruses like this are still hanging around to be plucked out of the ether." Then came the mega-synth telephone game "Somebody Told Me" - the Hot Fuss song that made Aftermath and many of his colleagues spit-take and say, "Who the hell is this? I thought the Pet Shop Boys broke up years ago." (Turns out they didn't.)
If a band positions its breakout single third in a 21-song set (including encore), in other words, it's fairly sure the rest of its material can carry the weight. For the most part, it did, with Sam's Town songs that could be lost Rick Springfield tracks ("Bones"), Day & Age efforts that will last a few sets yet - lyrical ineptness aside, "Human" is the Killers to a T - and Hot Fuss songs that killed the first time and every time since, like glorious gospel-rocker "All These Things That I've Done," which is still hard to believe didn't originate with a bolt of lightning striking Flowers square on his ample forehead.
The sleek, wiry crescendos of "For Reasons Unknown" made it the most purely rocking song of the set, while a couple of covers that showed just how widely the band's interests can wander. They brought out Morgan Kibby of French synthtronica openers M83 - whose lush, amniotic set implied melody more than displayed it, but created a warm atmosphere worth revisiting under cover of headphones - to duet with Flowers on the friendliest cuckold song ever written, Kenny Rogers' "Ruby, Don't Take Your Love to Town." Between the spaghetti-western chicken-scratch guitar and heavy conga-fed salsa beat, the Roaster would have been proud. Joy Division's "Shadowplay," meanwhile, was appropriately sepulchral with autonomic electronic rhythms and eerie black-and-white footage of that band on the LED.
Inevitably, a few songs felt a little threadbare. Flowers' flat solo-piano reading of "Sam's Town" made Aftermath wish he was sitting a little closer to the bathroom, and despite the King and I trappings of D&A's "Neon Tiger" - the red light, smoke machines and palm trees were enough to Vietnam flashbacks if anyone there Monday was actually old enough to remember the '70s - the emperor of Siam had no clothes. "Bling (Confessions of a King)" borrowed the stutter-step of Talking Heads' "Road to Nowhere" only to end up at that exact destination, while the new, skiffle-ish "I Can't Stay" tried a little too hard to be a sequel to David Bowie's "Young Americans."
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During Sam's Town's "Read My Mind" - which Aftermath still can't hear without thinking about its use in spots for NBC's brilliant Friday Night Lights - Aftermath ticked off four branches of the song's personal Joshua Tree: a) Brian Eno synths; b) hand-clapping crowd; c) desert scenery, including a gorgeous violet sunset on the LED screen; and d) waves of pealing Edge-like guitar. But the Killers redeemed themselves with yet another magnificent chorus, to the point where they weren't so much ripping off U2 as challenging them, a move most of their contemporaries lack the moxie to even attempt, let alone pull off.
Like U2, the Killers dream big, a philosophy that accounts for the grandiose Brahms-like chords of "Mr. Brightside" and vaulted-ceiling ambition of "All These Things That I've Done" - the singalong to refrain "I've got soul, but I'm not a soldier" was deafening. Likewise, closing Springsteen, um, homage "When You Were Young" simply couldn't have stoked the balcony-shaking reaction it did if it were mere mimicry - not to mention it takes Springsteen and the E Street Band at least ten people to achieve the same sound the Killers managed from only five.
After a final shower of sparks worthy of another "K" band - KISS - it was obvious why the girl sitting (well, standing, mostly) next to Aftermath had "Sam's Town" tattooed on her arm. (She was from California, following the band around Texas.) The general knock on the Killers is that they've achieved their relatively lofty position by standing on the shoulders of giants, which may well be true. But Monday night they showed that in reaching for the stars, they have yet to exceed their grasp.