Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Kills - not great, but really good

WB welcomes guest writer Some Guy and hopes to persuade him to guest as often as he'd like. ;-)

The Kills @ Magic Stick, Detroit, May 8, 2009

The Kills showed themselves to be a cool band when word got out that they record in Benton Harbor, MI on an obscure Flickinger mixing console that used to belong to Sly Stone. That and the insanely brilliant track "Last Day of Magic" from their current record, Midnight Boom, sealed it (click the image to hear tracks at the band's site). When the band came to Detroit for a show, there was no question about being so there to catch it.

The Room
The Magic Stick is a great place to not watch a band, and that's not meant as an insult. If you were going to shoot pool, drink, and talk with pals without keeping an eye on the stage, this would be a nice room. If you want to take in the band, dance, watch the show... well, someone needs to redesign the place a bit. The best part of the Magic Stick is the outdoor patio. The view isn't great (lighted signs at Harper Hospital), but the neon bowling sign is cool. But as a room to hear a band, Magic Stick gets a C+. Visibility ain't great, since there are two staircases (to the patio) that afford a decent view for fewer than 10 people. And this show should have been louder. The sound was a little wimpy and the room was a giant bass trap. Nothing against the bass, which happens to be a favorite instrument, but this wasn't nice.

The Openers
The opening acts were interesting. Magic Wands, or whatever their name was, were fairly unremarkable.The drummer appeared not to be playing half of the time. After a set of nondescript tunes, The Horrors were much better and reminiscent of Killing Joke — a major compliment. It helped that the kids in this band looked to be about 15. A quick mental test: would I go see this band as a headliner? Magic Wands: no. The Horrors: yes.

The Kills
There were no specific expectations for this band before the show, apart from the fact that they're kind of like The White Stripes without a drummer, which is an unfair comparison that doesn't cause much excitement. Based on the energy of their Midnight Boom effort, it was reasonable to expect the lack of literal "boom" to be offset with some emotional, theatrical "boom." Nothing against drum machines; good beats, electronic or otherwise, are an art form (the Beastie Boys lyric, "I'm in the pocket, just like Grady Tate / I got supplies of beats so you don't have to wait" comes to mind).

What the band lacks in percussion, they make up for in odd stage names. The guitarist dude has a proper name but goes by "Hotel," which seems nearly as stupid as calling yourself "The Edge," except for the fact that we haven't had 30 years to get used to it. The singer also has a name, but goes by "VV," which just doesn't look right in certain typefaces, but isn't quite as disconcerting as her counterpart's chosen appellation.

The Kills got off to a bad start. Some kind of sound/guitar/beatbox problems crept up in their first tune. Mr. Hotel seemed pretty irritated by this and the two performers just turned on their heels and bagged it in the middle of their opening number. Their tech guy was concentrating intently on smoking, which he seemed more interested in doing than fixing their problem. Never quite able to get past the technical problem, the band just seemed off for much of their two sets, the second of which was plagued by some poorly-executed covers (more on those later). The show had far less energy than should have been expected from listening to their albums. Then there was that misstep in their opening song, which had a "let's go back downstairs and start this over again" kind of feel to it.

Cheap guitars are also a nice touch — from the looks of them, the instruments on stage were cheap Mosrite/Teisco-like 60s Japan jobs, very cool . But the switching of guitars and the lack of bottom end on a few of them was a drag. Tech guy dutifully re-tuned the crappy guitars as they were alternated (that is, when this activity fit in with his smoking). Still, there were some great performances. The tracks "Hook and Line" and "Tape Song" went over with enough energy, and even the opening "U.R.A. Fever" was good once the band got back onstage to try it again. The much beloved "Last Day of Magic" seemed a little jagged and tired, however. It probably had no chance of living up to the glorious sound of that track on the album, especially when the band was having a bad night.

It was a good show. Not a great show, but a good show.

The Covers
The Kills did three really bad covers in their second set. More accurately, they did one bad cover, one terrible cover, and one inexcusable cover. Now, cover tunes can be great, and there are no "off-limits" tunes, i.e. tunes where an original is so great that it shouldn't be covered. That's baloney. Any song is cover-worthy, and if you don't think that any song can be rehabilitated by a good cover version, you've never heard Richard Thompson's version of "Oops, I Did It Again."

But The Kills are at a special disadvantage on the cover front. While a sparse, stripped-down cover like Seu Jorge's cover of "Changes" by David Bowie, works at every level due to Jorge's excellent voice, samba guitar, and Portuguese lyrics, low-fi/garage rock/whateveryoucallit is a different thing. A quickly executed cover for Jorge is instantly different and cool, while the same thing from The Kills sounds, well, like band practice in the garage.

A great song doesn't automatically make a great cover. In fact, it's often harder to make a cover of a great song work. All three of the tunes covered by The Kills are great songs in their own right — fantastic songs, actually. But The Kills ruined all three of them.

BAD: "Crazy" / Patsy Cline
First off, every female singer should be wary of touching this tune even with a hundred-foot pole. It's only one of the greatest country songs ever, and the Patsy version is imprinted in everyone's mind. But okay, The Kills were going to give it a go.

What went wrong: Mr. Hotel man played the guitar part straight, including the jazz/country turnaround chords. But the band literally killed it when they went up a half step like the original; that kind of modulation from a low-fi garage band is literally laughter inducing... it was like wearing a gorilla mask with a prom dress. VV's vox wasn't exactly up to the task, and this was underscored by the fact that she used much of Patsy's phrasing. Unoriginal, uninteresting, and unfortunate.

TERRIBLE: "Pale Blue Eyes" / Velvet Underground
Now, this should have worked. This band has VU cred and Mr. Hotel man looks quite a bit like Lou Reed. If someone was able to pull of a Velvets cover, this act should be able to nail it. This is a wonderful song, and it's been covered well many, many times (even R.E.M. did a passable job with this one).

What went wrong: Very much like the Great Patsy Cline Disaster, they played this straight, the way every band that was ever formed has played it. It was awful. The singing was uninteresting, and while Mr. Hotel man did try to mix it up rhythmically a bit at times, it just didn't work. Because they are carrying on in the VU tradition so well with their own material, they get extra points off for botching this one. Yeeeeuch!

INEXCUSABLE: "I Put a Spell on You" / Screamin' Jay Hawkins
This just shouldn't have happened. Unless you're going to radically re-shape this tune, you have dug yourself an impossible hole: that hole is called "how to sing/act/scream crazier than Screamin' Jay" and you will never get out of that hole.

What went wrong: Again, they played is straight. Mr. Hotel man tried to approximate the drums, horn section, and bone-in-the-nose energy with his little guitar and it just didn't work. VV once again sang it like the record and came up way, way short. Want proof you can re-work this song? Check out this 1968 cover by Nina Simone.

Still, the overall impression at the end of the night was that The Kills are a great band who put on a good show. Next time they're in town, there's no question about being so there again to see them.

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