General 4-17-2005

Breaking Out of the Garage

The Kills and the Sights throw a few curves at lo-fi rock’s tried and true formula

The Kills

No Wow

The Kills

Rough Trade

The Sights

The Sights

Scratchie / New Line

To exist as a garage rock band today—or more specifically to be more than just a garage rock band—it seems you have to stand out from the crowd, either by stunning the room with your mere presence (á la Karen O) or by ripping off obscure ’60s records that everyone’s forgotten about (á la The Strokes). The Kills, an Anglo-American pair, and the Sights, young dudes from garage hotbed Detroit, do what they can to clatter above the masses on their respective new records, with varying success.

The former, not to be confused with the more mainstream pop band the Killers, are often mentioned in the same breath as the White Stripes, because both are boy/girl bands and share a less-is-more aesthetic with strong blues elements in their sound. But while the White Stripes and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs may deem bass players unnecessary, the duo of Jamie Hince (“Hotel”) and Alison Mosshart (“VV”) take their minimalism one step further and dispense with the need for one of those pesky drummers too, concocting a fuzzed and frill-free sound.

No Wow is the band’s heavily anticipated follow-up to 2002’s Keep on Your Mean Side, and, despite the stripped-down lineup, there’s a little more fat on the bone this time out. Early on, Hotel had intended to make the new record radically different by writing and playing all of his parts on a Moog keyboard. Fortunately, that plan died a well-deserved death because the synth wasn’t repaired by the time they hit the studio. Instead, he bought a cheap old programmable drum machine, which ticks and thumps away on the title track as well as several others.

As a result, No Wow emphasizes the way the souless drum loop is punctured by stammering six-strings, tracing the turbulent years of CBGB’s and Studio 54, when disco bounced from the Upper West Side and punk blew the doors off the Village. So “Love is a Deserter” offers the band’s signature tandem, breathy vocals atop probing guitar; “The Good Ones” staggers and squalls to the electronic monotones of another machine-fueled track. Sometimes the Kills capture perfectly the lowdown sound they’re after: VV’s downtrodden vocals on “I Hate the Way You Love” make P.J. Harvey comparisons unavoidable, and on “Sweet Cloud” the guitar weirdness seems not to be coming from an effects pedal, but rather from the sound of cigarette butts wedged under the strings to tune them down.

All in all, though, the Kills don’t quite stand out enough. They’re so painfully of today, they’re practically the day after tomorrow already—shamelessly retro and raw, no bass, lyrics centered on love/hate relationships, vehement denial that they’re dating. Sound familiar?

Detroit trio the Sights break a little more new ground—they seem intent on muddying things up as far as the whole pigeonholing-a-garage-band-from-Detroit thing, which I can appreciate. High school pals Eddie Baranek (vocals/guitar), Mike Trombley (drums) and Mark Leahey (bass/vocals) formed the Sights in 1998; their break came in 2004 when they caught the ear of ex-Smashing Pumpkins guitarist James Iha, who signed them to his own Scratchie Records.

They’ve got the requisite skuzzy-blues chops despite being such young dudes, in their early twenties, and their Scratchie debut (and third LP overall) features garage with a twist—it’s positively rotten with lighthearted swirling organ and ’60s day-glo rock guitars. And in addition to the nods to the MC5 and the Who—y’know, the cooler side of classic rock—more than a few wafts of second-stringers like Bob Seger and the Band slip through the Sights’ songwriting as well, which instinctively makes my teeth itch.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m far from being a ’70s “rawk” hater. Au contraire. I get it. I know what this band is doing, and I like the idea of expanding garage’s sonic palette. I’m just not sure I like its expansion in this direction, or that I can hang on for the muttonchop ride of my life that this record seems to be promising. Matter of fact, the Sights’ wider appreciation of the past actually works best when they trade in the psych-blues stuff and explore power-pop convention.

“Backseat,” especially, sounds like they came down with a slight case of Badfinger, which is never a bad thing in my book. Maybe if the Archies had experimented in psychedelic drug usage, the Sights might’ve further embraced their flirtation with yummy garage pop. As of right now, alas, they seem to be most comfortable working on their “Night Moves.”

Neither of these records quite work like they should, and both leave me a little bit cold. Then again, they also have enough of a gimmick that it’s nearly certain that both the Kills and the Sights will be huge, and bands 30 years from now will be ripping them off.

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