Every week we pick one album we think you need to spend time on. This week's album is the Kills' Ash & Ice.
When they arrived in the season of rock revivalist duos in 2003, the Kills stood out mostly for their greasy fashion (the Black Keys dressed like bank employees out for the weekend at the beginning) and the electric sexual tension between Jamie Hince and Alison Mosshart that was around their music like the white paper around a Polaroid (unlike the White Stripes, for obvious reasons). Where their fellow duos were content to redo blues and classic rock, the Kills made music that seemed pre-written to soundtrack Victoria’s Secret runway shows, or car commercials with a lot of explosions. They were better dressed, made music that was more playful—even if it was less successful—and seemed like they were okay with people thinking they were actually having fun. They were going to be huge.
But that last part never quite happened. Part of that was timing—5 albums in 13 years isn’t the clip you’d need to remind people that you exist—plus the Kills have lives outside of the group. Hince married Kate Moss and was legitimately for a time a tabloid figure in the UK. Mosshart started painting and palled around with Jack White in Dead Weather. Plus, the band made only good albums, never a career-defining classic. Not that that matters much; their batting average is better than most, but there really isn’t one album you can point to in their discography that is the one you need to start with.
Ash & Ice, the Kills’ fifth album might be that album. It’s certainly got a hell of a backstory: Hince slammed his finger in a car door, and after a botched cortisone shot, he almost lost his entire hand. They had to swap out tendons, his hand flayed surgically like a Ramsay Bolton torture rack job, and he eventually had to teach himself how to play guitar with his scientifically reinvented hand. In the meantime, he got better at producing the electronic backing ooze that has been the lowkey highlight of Kills music since the jump, got divorced, and took a train trip through Siberia, which gave the album its name.
It’s tempting to call Ash & Ice the Kills’ “electronic” album, but Hince’s increased production dexterity doesn’t lead this to sounding like a Daft Punk album or something similar. The backgrounds of these songs are just more fleshed out in a way that other Kills albums got by on the attitude of the emptiness behind Hince’s guitars. Lead single “Siberian Nights” is the primest example; it’s multicolor in a way most Kills songs haven’t been. Hince’s programming is best on “Doing It To Death” which builds its sizzling fuzz on top of a beat that sounds dropped in from a DJ Drama tape, “Days Of Why And How,” which wouldn’t take much work to convince someone is a Phil Collins cover.
Like every Kills album, the success of Ash & Ice mostly lies on Mosshart, and the secret of the Kills discography, and her work in Dead Weather, is that she’s become a better vocalist. Where she used to wail like a banshee, her voice has developed layers, where she can croon (“Hum for Your Buzz”), sound like a rockabilly zombie (“Hard Habit to Break”), and carry a ballad (“That Love,” “Echo Home”). She’s probably the best vocalists in mid-major indie rock and hardly anyone acknowledges it.
Ash & Ice is, for my money, the best Kills album. And ultimately, it doesn’t matter if they’re never going to be the biggest band on earth; they’ll be a band prominently featured on the third line of every festival lineup from here on out. You’d have seemed crazy if you picked them as the rock duo to make it this long and be making more vital music than they did at the jump, but here they are, with the best work of their career, still out in the midnight boom keeping on their mean side.
Andrew Winistorfer is Director of Music at Vinyl Me, Please, and a writer and editor of their books, 100 Albums You Need in Your Collection and The Best Record Stores in the United States. He’s written Listening Notes for more than 30 VMP releases, co-produced multiple VMP Anthologies, and executive produced the VMP Anthologies The Story of Vanguard and The Story of Willie Nelson. He lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota.
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