"Ash & Ice" is the fifth studio album by The Kills, a duo who got its start as a feral, garage punk rock act, riffing alongside a drum machine. This album, the band's first in five years, almost didn't happen though, as guitarist Jamie Hince endured six surgeries on his arm, leaving him unable to play guitar for a while. He thankfully recovered, relearned, and prevailed, and "Ash & Ice" may have some 'fight song' victorious spirit and hard toil embedded.
The duo's sound has morphed, matured, and mellowed, and the 13-track disc seems to be its most sophisticated offering to date. Due to the unchanging, mechanical drum machine, programmed samples, and synth programming, the music's dynamic fortunately stays human, the shared responsibility of Hince and vocalist Alison Mosshart. Broad appeal envelopes a feeling of the now, the here today, the immediacy of the listen and the ephemeral.
Produced by three and mixed by a small army of nine, with that many proverbial cooks in the kitchen, the music naturally shares traits with contemporary "radio" pop. "Doing It To Death", "Days Of Why and How", and "Let It Drop" all share a nightclub theme or a dance music, mass-appeal, radio friendly direction, lending some current direction or modern soul and groove to the album. The album's rock influence is more subtle, but present: blues-rooted guitar peppers "Hum For Your Buzz" and "Siberian Nights". "Black Tar" and "Echo Home" retain the a relaxed tempo and feel, and feature some sparse, rock-oriented guitar, with effects, like reverb, used sparingly. Album closer "Whirling Eye" is the most uptempo and upbeat song.
"That Love" is a poignant, shorter vocal and piano ballad, with only a gently strummed acoustic guitar accompaniment. The piano's uncluttered, melancholy melody of a few well-chosen notes and chords (played and emoted by Mosshart's Dead Weather bandmate Dean Fertita) leaves plenty of room for Mosshart's rich and unaffected voice - literally and figuratively. Like many of Mosshart's "Fire Power" tour-diary paintings, her words record a happenstance, an event, or a moment, and yet are vague enough to be embraced by someone outside of her sphere. Lyrics are highly personalized, and uncommonly delivered as second-person, addressing an unknown protagonist entangled by "that love you're in - is all fucked up".
In sharp contrast to the bitter tears and rueful, tender touch of "That Love", "Impossible Tracks" brings back some of the grit and drive, some of the sweat and effort, from the dawn of The Kills' releases. The relentless, mid-tempo drum machine provides a foundation for Hince to let some darkness and rebellious, punk-edged attitude through. As with most of The Kills' songs, arrangements are fairly minimalist, without excess layering or overthought orchestration. Other than the restrained hard rock riff, a synth plinks away. A retro, New Wave infused bridge acts as it should: straddling the gap for the band between the 'then' and the 'now'. Lyrically, a reflexive, nostalgic glance hints at what was and what could be:
"Oh don't you take me all this way"
"To bring me back to earth one day"
"I'm gonna roll on back, on impossible tracks"
"And get carried away."
For a fan who gravitates toward harder rock, "Impossible Tracks" highlights "Ash & Ice" as thoughtfully as "That Love" centers it for a listener who enjoys ballads and anti-romance.
For those looking for flash and flair, the minimalist approach of The Kills is not "it". For fans looking to color about an hour with contemporary 'beats', lovely female vocals, some slightly raunchy guitar, and unobtrusive sound, pick up "Ash & Ice" and let it pleasantly dissolve into your headspace.
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