The-Kills-Keep-on-Your-Mean-SideRevisit is a series of reviews highlighting past releases that now deserve a second look.

Well before Alison Mosshart spent significant time standing next to Jack White onstage when both were members of the Dead Weather, she got an earful about the band that made his fame. When Mosshart’s band the Kills, in which she collaborates with Jamie Hince, released their debut full-length in 2003, it was right in the midst of a garage rock revival. The White Stripes were widely considered the standard bearers of this movement, at least until White’s rampant ambition made it clear that the band was going to transcend any reductive categorization that the established music press tried to hang on them. For a time, any new band that arrived with a raw, bluesy, hard-rockin’ sound needed to run a gauntlet of withering comparisons to what Jack and Meg were creating. That the Kills were also a duo only made the game of compare and contrast all the more enticing.

The partnership of Mosshart and Hince started when they were on opposite sides of the Atlantic. The two of them tried songwriting via international mail, sending tapes back and forth between Mosshart in Florida and Hince in London. This quickly proved untenable, and Mosshart relocated. Their earliest efforts have the surging intensity of delayed gratification. On that full-length debut, Keep on Your Mean Side, even a relatively low-key, downbeat song like “Monkey 23” has the feel of a blister being scraped. It’s not as if the song trembles with the promise that it’s going to surge into something bigger and fuller. It seethes with the certainty that it’s strong enough without resorting to bombast. That dynamic is the phenomenal paradox at the core of the album: it has an ease and certainty of a lived-in partnership and yet the schismatic thrill of tapping into something new. In an inverse of the typical progression, the long-distance beginnings helped the musicians know one other before they lived in the same place long enough to find one another.

Listening to Keep on Your Mean Side now, approximately 10 years after its initial release, reemphasizes a long-held suspicion: those White Stripes comparisons never really made much sense beyond the most facile similarities. The two groups shared a clear affection from stripped-down, bluesy rock songs, but that was about it. Where the White Stripes always operated with an effusive sense of showmanship, the Kills hold everything together much tighter. Jack White’s guitar always seemed (and seems, for that matter) on the verge of taking on a life of its own and rocketing around the room, but Hince’s guitar work is comparatively contained, though no less intoxicating. The tough riff that opens “Fried My Little Brains” is the epitome of heady rock bliss, and his relentless locomotive crawl through “Cat Claw” (a song carried over from the band’s first EP, Black Rooster) is ferocious specifically because of the way it holds back. If the White Stripes come striding through the door arms akimbo and chin up, the Kills slink in and edge over to the bar, utterly disinterested in whether or not you notice them. About the only concession the Kills make to the spectacle of rock ‘n’ roll is through the adoption of stage names: VV for Mosshart and Hotel for Hince.

Much as Keep on Your Mean Side thrives because of the symbiosis between the two musicians in the Kills, it’s really Mosshart who’s the star, as White eventually figured out when he diverted her to one of his many side projects. She sometimes shares vocal duties with Hince, but it’s the ragged beauty of her efforts that catches the ear. It can come from something small such as the creaky groans in “Pull a U” or a strangely, enticingly emotional performance across an entire song, as with the tender “Gypsy Death & You,” which closes the album. In fact, the very last lyric sung on the record is “That’s the way that you feel,” which is somehow evocative of the comfort of the whole release, the self-assurance that understatement and emotional weight can go hand in hand. The very last sound on the album is actually Mosshart breaking into a laugh that hints at satisfaction and accomplishment, a reaction perfectly suited to the work that’s eased out before it.

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