“Why So Serious?” The 2012 Mixtape – The Kills’ “Black Balloon”

4-black-balloon

Stats
– Length: 3:43
– Originally released on: Midnight Boom (March 10, 2008)
– Samples: Applause, Queens of the Stone Age – “No One Knows.”

I swear our chant is crashing in my mind…

This Fall, an old friend of mine was in town that I hadn’t seen in several years, so we met at a local pub for a drink and catch-up. Back when we were both in high school, we shared a similar taste in music (more or less) and most of our conversations in the time since have focused on our record collections. So it was a bit of a surprise to me to hear that he had given up on rock music and spent most of his time listening to classical.

His reasons? That he had grown weary of popular music’s incessant focus on image over the music itself. He was tired of the fact that a rock song’s greatness is intrinsically tied to who’s performing it: how they’re dressed, how they perform it, etc. The beauty of classical music, he argued, is that it’s the composer that gets the attention, and their creations can be recreated by orchestras around the world and still have the same impact. It’s the substance that’s the focus, not the style.

He’s right, of course, but the reason why I remain a committed devotee of pop/rock music (in its broadest sense) is because style is an inseparable component of the genre’s substance. A band’s image, their performances, their sexuality…this isn’t value-added, it’s an integral part of the experience. It’s one of the reasons why rock and roll has survived so well through all the turmoil of the past 60 years: its post-modern foundation means it’s malleable to shifts in public opinion and different technology trends, far more-so than most “popular” forms of art.

The Kills prove this point perfectly. Their third album, Midnight Boom, is full of solid songs, but would they really work as well without the minimalist production? Without the pure sex that drips from the voice of Allison Mosshart? Without the unique combination of electronic beats with throat-cutting guitar?

The answer’s no. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Image matters too, often as much as the production. I had the pleasure of seeing The Kills twice this year – the first was outside on a beautiful summer day in Montreal, the second was in an adorably grungy club in Brooklyn, New York. And the two shows were like day and night (literally). It was the first show that finally brought me to the band, although their name had been bandied about in my circles for some time. It was a fantastic performance that really won over the crowd…but it was still a beautiful summer afternoon.

New York was a little more like it. The band’s raw edge and grungy sexuality plays perfectly in a club where the walls are black, the few chairs uncomfortable and the bartenders pour their whisky stiff. When Mosshart leans out over her microphone into the crowd while Jamie Hince lashes into his guitar on a small, wooden stage, the performance and setting are every bit as important as the (few) notes they play.

“Black Balloon” is one of the two moments on Midnight Boom where the duo pulls things back a notch, but if anything it’s the album’s strongest aesthetic statement. Listen closely to the way the drum tracks stick mostly to handclaps and what sounds like a trash can. Pay attention to how the bass track adds an acoustic guitar without drawing attention to it. Things stay small, minimal and raw, but add a pathos and beauty quite different from the rest of the album’s guitar punk. Is there a lot of substance here? Depends on your point of view. It has a simple lyric, very little development as a song and the thing amounts to something, like, three or four chords.

But that’s not exactly the point, is it?

Download: The Kills’ “Black Balloon” (The Weather’s Way)

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