I never heard of The Kills until a few days ago when I ran across Tape Song and listened to it 4 times in a row. In other words, I speak as a neophyte– which contains a certain piquancy coming from somebody my age. A cursory web search and a few youtube clips later I’ve accumulated several bits of questionable knowledge: The Kills can be pigeon-holed into that hep-speak category “shoegaze,” a concept that owes almost everything to poor dead Bill Burroughs, a man who managed to embrace both the forlorn and the unwholesome in such a way that many of those of us who read his fiction became convinced he was a genius. (Norman Mailer, for example, whose suggestion that Bill was “the only American novelist living today who may conceivably be possessed by genius” graced the back covers of many editions of Naked Lunch.)
Shoegaze is a play on Burroughs’ claim that he once dissipated a fair portion of his life so stoned on heroin he could spend an entire day staring ruminatively at his shoes. Some clever person appropriated that image and reworked it to describe a kind of down-tempo, post-punk sound of the sort that made My Bloody Valentine deservedly loved. I suppose The Kills are shoegaze, but from the tracks I’ve listened to so far there seems to be a conscious effort on their part to variegate and diversify. “Cheap and Colorful,” for instance, leaves me cold though it incorporates some of the musical elements that make “Tape Song” so exciting, in particular craptastic beats from a drum machine which may have been bought for a case of beer on Craig’s List or possibly discovered in a deserted parking lot. Ordinarily, a drum machine would signify the kind of shite Pop that characterized the 1980s– a bland, fatuous decade for American Music in spite of the advent of rap and second wave punk. But in “Tape Song,” the drum machine functions as a significant aesthetic choice in much the way that the films of Wong Kar-wai pay obsessive attention to disposable, mass-produced kitsch. I could never watch Chungking Express without longing to inhabit the same space as that film’s protagonists– the cheap apartment mere yards away from an airport; the snack bar where Cop 663 meets Fay– or to surround myself with the unassuming everyday objects Wong Kar-wai lingers over: canned mandarin oranges, a toy model of a jet, plastic flip-flops. The aesthetic value here is one of impermanence, ephemerality, or– to put it another way– the absence of value. Perhaps it’s a matter of taking that which is cheap and inadequate on its own terms, of embracing the inorganic sound of a second rate drum machine as part of a larger commentary. In this sense, I don’t even care to know “Tape Song’s” lyrics. The three primary components of the track– Hotel’s fuzzy guitar, VV’s petulant vocals, and the tick and crack of that damn drum machine– do all the necessary work, producing a sense of alienation and discontent (in me at least) that demands to be savored.