Roughly halfway through the Kills’ “Love Is a Deserter,” the chant “Get the guns out / Get the guns out / Your lover is a deserter,” starts to wear itself out and show the band’s occasional immaturity. It’s a shame, too, because for most of No Wow, the duo’s second proper full-length, guitarist/vocalist VV and drummer Hotel (who also sings and plays guitar) work their noir-punk well enough to finally escape the endless White Stripes comparisons. Yes, The Kills are a male/female duo — VV is the singer. Yes, they work their bizarre, opaque brand of sexual tension into their drone-heavy songs. And yes, it sounds like they both would have been happier making music in the 1930s alongside weathered blues musicians.
But it’s their preoccupation with call-and-response that sometimes turns No Wow into an inescapable vicious cycle. With no bassist, The Kills’ stark noir becomes totally dependent on VV and Hotel’s double helix. A follower of Rid of Me-era P.J. Harvey, VV howls like a preacher’s wayward daughter as Hotel plays the role of the faithful/faithless straight man.
Their percussion is provided by a lone drum machine that sounds like it’s been the victim of a few too many drunken kicks to the CPU. However, when The Kills’ man/machine combination hits the right spots, like on the frightening, stripped-down “Dead Road 7,” the fear and loathing on No Wow becomes biblical.
Hotel shows a strong predilection for dreary minor keys, slicing away at his guitar admirably. If that’s all The Kills were — a boy/girl band where the boy likes his guitar blue-black and the girl likes her songs howling, they’d have distanced themselves from their punk-blues brethren with ease.
But of course, there’s a snag. While VV’s voice has all the requisite feminine grit of her idol, her lyrical sense is mired in “Dear Diary”-level sludge. The Kills often abandon the standard chorus/verse structure for a tangential series of repeated lines, often the song title, for entire minutes. Titles sound like they were thought up during a violently sexual cross-country road trip — “At the Back of the Shell” and “I Hate the Way You Love.” The dark labels work well most of the time, but no image can handle repetitive vocal beatings that last upwards of two minutes. A good one-liner generally works better when it’s incorporated into a larger story.
No Wow is by all means a stylistically unified album that offers plenty in the way of shadowy sound, but don’t expect much breadth to come along with their sense of density. Taken in small doses, The Kills hit like raw coffee grounds — bitter, rife with energy and filled with shades of black, black and blacker. It’s the gray areas in their sound and lyrics that need reinforcement.
Rating: 3 stars out of 5