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The Gray Area: A review of “Midnight Bloom”

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There is something special about tension in music that makes us sit up in our chair and lean into the sound. The Kills, composed of British guitarist Jamie Hince and American vocalist Alison Mosshart, are expert crafters of this component and deliver it to us time and time again in myriad ways, both in live performances and recorded albums. Their 2008 album Midnight Boom, is a case study of sonic tension and its many forms.

Stated plainly, Hince is one of the most underrated guitarists in the post-classic rock era. From his Höfner 169 to his Supro Ozark 1560S, he commands attention with snappy rhythms that contain thick layers of his trademark sound. Hince has adapted his style out of necessity; between the band’s most recent two albums, Hince lost the use of his fretboard middle finger. The guitarist retooled his playing style to avoid using that finger, and he now plays with an iconic middle finger raised perpendicular to the fretboard. From his vintage boots, tight leather pants, gorgeous scarves and shimmery jackets, Hince is the quintessential modern British rockstar who knows precisely how talented he is.

There is no better match for Hince than Mosshart. With a powerful voice and dynamic range, Mosshart commands attention at center stage during the band’s performances. While managing to belt out lyrics with precision, she dances erratically and feeds the crowd endless energy. When one sees Mosshart on stage, one understands there is absolutely nothing she’d rather be doing than performing her art with Jamie on her right-hand side. From their earliest concerts when they performed as VV and Hotel, the pair has owned the stage with music and a feeling unlike any other group. Experiencing the Kills live is akin to getting an expensive dinner comped by the chef — you know it was going to be incredible, but it somehow exceeds your expectations in ways words fail to adequately describe.

More than any other album in their discography, Midnight Boom recreates the experience of the band’s live performances in a pre-packaged album format. The album’s defining trait is tension. If you blink you might miss it.

The record beings with “U.R.A Fever,” which intentionally mimics the mysterious overtures that general kickoff rock concerts. In fact, it was their go-to concert opener for several years. The dial tone that introduces the song quickly devolves into a quiet, line for line exchange between Hince and Mosshart. It feels like an energetic lover’s quarrel that crests and recedes with every chorus. Periodically, Hince breaks from the lyrical pattern to let steam off with his guitar. He unveils his now-classic “machine gun” guitar distortion that vividly reminds listeners of vitriolic fights with a partner. The final verse resolves the tension in the first part of the song, as Mosshart and Hince sing together in the plural first person to show that their tense fight has been resolved, even if simply band-aided over.

On the up-tempo and memorable “Cheap and Cheerful,” Mosshart is stunningly plain spoken about their fighting. With a characteristic hair flip, she lets her boyfriend know “I want you to be crazy / Cause you’re boring baby when you’re straight / I want you to be crazy / Cause you’re stupid baby when you’re sane.” It almost feels like she’s picking a fight for the sake of having a fight. It’s as if she’s saying, it doesn’t matter what you are, I need you to be different to keep it interesting, to keep that rock and roll passion.

But, again, the tone of the album recedes, just as it did with “U.R.A Fever,” on the track “Last Day of Magic.” Generally, the song is performed live with Mosshart and Hince locking eyes and taking the sincerity of their music to the next level. The song appears to be the thoughts of someone in a relationship who is considering what a break up would look like and how it would feel. Evidently, it wouldn’t feel great given her imagery of hurricanes and tornados. “Last Day of Magic” is a critical moment in the album where the tension is most palpable. There is strain, there is anxiety, there is love, and there is doubt. What other ingredients could you ask for in a modern relationship?

The moments of tension are plentiful on this album. Absolute gems like “Black Balloon,” “Sour Cherry,” and “Goodnight Bad Morning” all deliver this trademark brand of The Kills’ love and hate, paired with a guitar that is one-part explosive and one-part serene. Hince and Mosshart have an indescribable and real love for music and one another. We’re lucky that their relationship manifests in incredible music that is built for live and at home experiences.

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