The Kills – No Wow

I made the mistake of reading some reviews of The Kills’ newie No Wow before I’d heard it myself. After some very lacklustre accounts of the record, I was expecting a devastating disappointment – one of those occasions where you excitedly pop the CD into the stereo, wait an excruciating five seconds, and then gradually experience an overwhelming anticlimax.

Luckily, my first listen to the album was pleasantly surprising. Not only is No Wow an exceptional album in its’ own right, it’s capable of delivering far more raw power and unadulterated passion than it’s predecessor. Keep on Your Mean Side was a stripped-back, scratchy garage punk minimalist mess, all yelled vocals and sex appeal courtesy Allison Mosshart (stage name VV), and crunchy guitars and gutteral moans from Jamie Hince (aka Hotel).

No Wow, in comparison, is a darker affair. There’s more focus on the grunted distortion of the guitar rather than on the flitting of the drum machine, VV’s vocals have become less confrontational and more passionately introspective, and the styling of a lot of the songs smacks of the raw repetition that the Velvet Underground brought to the fore thirty years ago. There’s a sensual fluidity to No Wow that arouses an invitingly yet simultaneously unsettling mood.

The pair’s fixation with the Andy Warhol/Factory era, particularly with the fusion of disco and punk, becomes decidedly evident from the upshot with the album’s title track. With a drum machine rhythm beating insistently like heavy rain, and the heavy distortion of Hotel’s guitar melding the sound into a motor-like drone, No Wow Now is intimidating and relentless. VV’s vocals begin little-girl soft, before gradually spiralling into yells with Hotel’s deep backing.

Love is a Deserter is morbid disco that just begs for volume. Though minimalist, the track is lush with warbling guitar sounds and the subtle layering of vocal harmonies. Dirty production, coupled with VV’s vocals reminiscent of Patti Smith, ensure a punchy climax to what some have claimed to be one of the album’s highlights.

VV has a knack of drawing you in completely, and with Dead Road 7 she secures a hold once again. It’s an eerie narrative that relies totally on the power of her vocals and storytelling ability. Meanwhile, The Good Ones is a return to Keep on Your Mean Side form, with the drum machine shuffling behind Hotel’s heavy distortion and VV’s guitar provides the hook-heavy upper melody.

The album’s mid point is a two-part track entitled I Hate the Way You Love, which virtually serves as a reference point for the band’s most prolific approaches to songwriting. The first half consists of the now-trademark minimalist drum machine beat, revving guitar riffs with distorted high-end flourishes, and VV’s vocals rapidly gathering power. The second part is the almost obligatory swaying ballad, rife with feedback and – it must be said – somewhat less effective than the former.

Sweet Cloud is yet another testament to the duo’s strength in exploiting a punk ethos. The verses are a tension-building stomp, and the chorus is an erratically-placed slab of hand-clapping neurosis. The folk-rock number Rodeo Town sees something a little different thrown in, with the distortion taking a backseat while tambourine keeps time for VV’s fantastically naked vocals. Hotel provides barely-detectable backing and suddenly you realise that yes, The Kills do country, and do it rather well.

The limited edition No Wow disc comes with a dogma-style DVD which consists largely of footage of the pair practising and in the studio. The performances consist of a lot of the older material, but also include a couple of impassioned live shows and interviews with Mosshart and Hince. It’s the interviews that render the DVD worthwhile, with some endearingly honest accounts from the pair on their feelings towards fame, perpetual touring, and the unique bond between them.

Despite what the critics say, I think No Wow does have the much-contemplated wow-factor. It’s completely devoid of music industry bullshit and, despite some low points in terms of the radio-friendly factor, when The Kills experiment, they do so daringly. Mosshart’s vocals are divine, and there’s an inherent strength in the creative understanding that she and Hince share – which, in my opinion, always translates through the music, whether it’s in the form of a potential hit or otherwise.