In writing about Ash & Ice, the new album from the Kills, I was prepared to be fairly tough. I’ve been enamored of the duo’s music for some time. Every one of their prior four full-length studio releases has a safe spot on my music shelves, and I’ve made a point of expounding on their greatness when given the chance. Truthfully, I didn’t really expect to get another album from the band, even though there’s been no indication they were anything less than a going concern and stories about them working through the recording process were offered by the music press with casual confidence. To support my skepticism, it’s probably worth noting that the articles reached via the hyperlink in the immediately preceding sentence is over two years old. Lead singer Alison Mosshart seemed a little preoccupied with her ostensible side project, the Dead Weather, a reasonably understandable choice given that Jack White’s presence on that band’s roster guaranteed a different level of attention (every Dead Weather album has spent at least a bit of time in the Billboard Top 10, spaces and spaces above any Kills release). Besides, she strikes me as an increasingly likely candidate to strike out on a fairly robust solo career.
And yet here we are, with a new Kills album, the first in five years. In some ways, Ash & Ice is unmistakably the product of Mosshart and guitarist Jamie Hince. It’s lean and grim, fierce with a skeletal intensity that makes it sound like music has been weaponized. The Kills are one of the few bands that can offer up a song like “Black Tar” and make it comes across like a diagnostic admission of the lifeblood that pulses through the album on which it resides. But there’s also a dramatic shift in the band’s sound. The angular, stripped-down, punk-inflected blues (or maybe blues-infused punk) of earlier albums is transformed by a spilled sonic cloud of electro-clash coloring. Though considering the particulars of the melded textures, trying to spy the cracks where the familiar meets the new, leads me to settle on the conclusion that the shift isn’t all that dramatic, that assessment of mild disruption of continuity doesn’t match the way it hits my ear. In admirably attempting to strike out in new directions, it too often feels like the band has lost themselves.
“Bitter Fruit” is a prime example of the problem. It exhibits only the most tentative embrace of the revised style, which inevitably plays like a gulping desperation recalling the more embarrassing stabs at trend-chasing taken by the Rolling Stones over the years. It’s not that it’s bad, exactly, but there’s something transparently over-eager about it. “Look how different we can sound,” it cries out, tugging anxiously at trailing earbud wires as the listener walks away. Song such as “Doing it to Death” and the churning “Impossible Tracks” are solid enough, but the also have no sticking power. They come and go. There’s simply not that much need for adequate Garbage redux (as on “Hard Habit to Break”) when Garbage is still out there doing surprisingly well for themselves, thanks.
As I noted at the top, I was prepared to weigh in negatively on Ash & Ice, and I suppose I have. Even still, I have fresh cause to appreciate the attempt at something different. As I tended to errands today, I popped around the radio dial, growing increasingly dismayed at the heavily shellacked, appallingly hollow, and fearfully shapeless songs that spilled out of the speakers, as if every band able to get the slightest bit of commercial attention is the same hideous amalgamation of Imagine Dragons, Shinedown, and fun. The new album from the Kills may leave me a touch disappointed, but, good Lemmy, at least it’s not that.