The Kills: still powerful, if a measure less dangerous

The Kills at the Music Box (Photo by Laurie Scavo)
The Kills at the Music Box (Photo by Laurie Scavo)

By Gabriel Jones

In one of the stranger passages from David Foster Wallace’s 2006 essay on his visit to the Adult Video Awards, Wallace describes an interview with an L.A. policeman who also happens to be a connoisseur of hard-core pornography. When the detective is asked why he’s into that stuff, he answers that it’s there where you occasionally see people drop their masks. “Sometimes – and you never know when, is the thing – sometimes all of a sudden they’ll kind of reveal themselves – their what-do-you-call ”¦ humanness. In real movies, it’s all on purpose. I suppose what I like is the accident of it.”

Not unlike pornography, the music industry relies on the relentless simulation of passion and intensity, and audiences hardly have the right to expect anything more than just that – a good and powerful performance. And Friday’s show at the Music Box in Hollywood saw both the Kills and openers Cold Cave making a game approximation of the sort of “accident” of humanness that Wallace’s detective sought.

||| Photos by Laurie Scavo

Both bands look to be trying to get back to something musically – the Kills to stripped-down blues-inflected rock, Cold Cave to the dark industrial sound of the early ’80s. Cold Cave’s Wesley Eisold sang in an anguished warble somewhere between Robert Smith and Ian McCulloch, and from the start at least the band brought a somewhat convincing feel of the more uncertain and tense side of the ’80s, although swirling about in his mod long black jacket he looked at times like he was performing for the party scene in an episode of “The OC.”

From the opener of the Kills’ set, 2005’s “No Wow,” Alison Mosshart commanded the stage with a half-prowl, half-strut, wearing skin-tight black pants and what might well have been Jack White’s old red-and-white shirt against a cheetah-print backdrop. The shift from the primal lo-fi drive of their first song to the more textured but still equally savage and searing “Future Starts Slow,” from their new album “Blood Pressures,” showed what the band’s been doing over its decade together – finding ways to bring more and more layers that still only barely cover a throbbing, grinding, animalistic pulse underneath.

Since they first started touring the Kills have been known for shows of such raw sexual energy that audiences often felt like they needed a cigarette after. With Jamie Hince now engaged to Kate Moss there’s considerably less sexual tension between the duo, leaving Mosshart somewhat unmoored in her at-times-mannered wanton abandon; occasionally it looked as if the two were only vaguely aware they’re in the same band. Hince spent most of the evening to the side of the stage coiled tightly over his guitar and pounding out driving riffs while Mosshart seemed to be dancing alone. In the end it was no great matter, since Mosshart can fill a stage all by herself, and, at least outside of Marilyn Manson, who also happened to be in the audience, she’s utterly unrivaled in her (man)handling of a microphone stand.

Halfway through the show the band brought out a trio of backup singers for a powerful set of “DNA” and “Satellite” off their new CD,  and a beefed-up “Tape Song” – angular and anxious in its post-punk edginess from 2008’s “Midnight Boom,” much more muscular and aggressive and confident here. Throughout the evening their songs built up tension, with Hince’s searing guitar and Mosshart’s scorched vocals ripping across a massive drum-machine beat that gradually eased into grooves that felt simultaneously relaxing and dangerous, aiming for a sexuality that sounds as much a threat as a suggestion – albeit perpetually undercut by Mosshart’s refusal to ever actually look at the audience, making it feel often more like a spectacle than genuine human connection or emotion.

The encore brought a mixture of emotions, with “The Last Goodbye” as an organ-filled dirge that sounded wistful, spent and sultry, as if Mosshart’s hinting that another go may be possible but she’s not entirely sure if she really wants it either. The band then brought the energy back with “Pots and Pans,” a sweaty bluesy number that swelled to an ecstatic exhilarating crescendo.

In the end what the show suggested is that the Kills have become simply skilled craftsmen, although in the process they’ve lost some of their dangerous edge –the sense that, with just a slight push in one direction, things could spin out of control and the humanness can spill out. As we all eventually slide more or less into maturity, though, it’s not an altogether bad trade, and it still makes for a pretty good party.