White Oak Music Hall
September 9, 2016
The Kills are a band where the future starts slow.
For 15 years, Alison Mosshart and Jamie Hince have been dishing out sparse, guitar-driven punk rock emblematic of the early aughts. While the rest of us have ambled through that decade, frittering away our musical time on bearded mandolin players or songs full of saxophone solos, The Kills have stayed committed to what's now an old-school sound. The band's latest album, Ash & Ice, builds squarely on this tradition, ambitiously marrying the band's garage aesthetic with a new generation of synthetic beats. On Friday night, ensconced in the shiny new acoustic paneling of White Oak Music Hall, they showed Houston that music of this vintage still has a sonic place in 2016.
The show began with frenetic precision. Mosshart captivated the audience with a rapturous stare during "Heart of a Dog," and Hince wowed with a grinding, triumphant, overpowering guitar. The duo then moved back in their catalog to "U.R.A Fever," the seductive, bassy call-and-response song from 2008's Midnight Boom. With each subsequent number, The Kills revealed themselves to be kings of the art of discord and masters of raw, bare rock. Their songs were heavy with the depth and maturity of a band that has history. Every hair flip, every pick slash, every pregnant pause landed like a step in an elaborately choreographed hard-rock ballet.
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The band was smart to indulge their Southern audience with some of their older, bluesy repertoire. The languid "Kissy, Kissy" filled the hall with sonic dirt and grit, accented by the tinny flourishes of Hince's guitar and the bombshell of Mosshart's singing. The backwater dirge "Pots and Pans" was a particular highlight. Mosshart retreated to the back of the stage to beat authoritatively on a floor tom; Hince, starting with a gentle caress of his guitar strings, crescendoed alongside Mosshart's beats into an impossible hurricane of sound, only to transition with dramatic strobe lighting into the soulful "Monkey 23." Soft or loud, fast or slow, the band was at its most powerful when it embraced the classic style that initially jettisoned it to critical acclaim.
The pair scintillated with intimacy throughout their performance. At times, it was sexy: a clandestine glance across a reverberating fretboard, or the whisper of background vocals over a shoulder. Mosshart even found herself on her knees midway through the show, spellbound and gazing crotchward during one of Hince's stripped-down solos. At other times, however, their rapport was convivial, full of big laughs, megawatt smiles or a raised eyebrow at a botched riff. The pair exuded an enviable affinity for each other, their live show a public manifestation of their private devotion. That love elevates the music, breathing life into songs that might have otherwise gone stale.
The Kills's encore proved to be yet another demonstration of mastery over their live performance. Mosshart re-emerged on the stage with an acoustic guitar, gracing the audience with a candid, heartbroken rendition of "That Love." But this tender moment was quickly flipped on its head when Hince, armed with his vintage Supro Ozark 1560S, joined her for a blistering production of "Siberian Nights." The eerie Hitchcockian undertones lanced through the crowd, while Mosshart beckoned us with the song's suggestive lyrics.
"Sour Cherry" proved to be the perfect finisher for The Kills's powerful set; high octane and happy, the song stampeded through the hall, with Hince and Mosshart galloping through the beats of its dizzying syncopation. But the song was more than a testament to the band's hard-rock bona fides; its refrain speaks to the curious place the group finds itself today. The Kills may not have started as a sour cherry on the fruit stand back in 2000, but they certainly are now. Rock charts are dominated by aspartamic tracks overflowing with hyper-production. Bands that declined in relevance 20 years ago repurpose squeaky-clean, major-label hits for an anemic market. The Kills, however, have not been so easily swayed. Ash & Ice has its fair share of electronic refinement, but the band remains firmly rooted in its analog traditions. Hince and Mosshart stand committed to a musical moment that sadly might be dead, or is at the very least hibernating. For now, The Kills are lonely standard-bearers, but their live show gives hope that rock like theirs might one day be resurrected. For now, we'll keep shouting, but not because we want to get off the ride.