Most bands ditch the drum machine early. Echo & the Bunnymen quickly hired a real person to play drums (their machine allegedly was named Echo). The Smashing Pumpkins were advised wisely to lose the beat box after their first few Chicago gigs. The last time I saw a male-female duo rocking out with just a drum machine behind them, Timbuk 3 was boasting of their bright future. (Whither Pat MacDonald?)
But the Kills are on their fourth album, and they love those programmed beats. Florida native Alison Mosshart and Britain's Jamie Hince (the future Mr. Kate Moss) returned to Chicago Wednesday night for a no-nonsense show at the Vic Theatre, weaving their New Wave blues riffs and dark Delta wailing into synthesized, push-button rhythms. It was a quickie -- they played just more than an hour -- but it was hot and dirty and got the job done.
Fresh and fully cocked, the Kills hit the stage Wednesday with "No Wow," the title track from their 2005 album (well before Mosshart joined Jack White in the Dead Weather), throwing the figurative spotlight to each other with a brother-sister ESP. These two are a potent, volatile duo. Hince's grated guitar riffs and Mosshart's exorcised singing work together to build tension. Lots of tension. That was neatly visualized by a coiled cord on one of Hince's guitars. The closer he got to Mosshart with his Tommy-gun attack patterns -- and he frequently held his guitar as if he were aiming a rifle, at her -- the tighter and tighter and tighter that cord stretched. When Mosshart said "Thank you!" at the end (and she said precious little all night) she was already out of breath and her frizzed hair was all over her face.
Wednesday night had several such moments. "Kissy Kissy" was a lovefest. It's less a song than a series of droning chants between wide-open passages, which Hince filled with a string-strangling melody while Mosshart aped him on her own guitar. Both guitars tugged at each other in the catchy melody of "Tape Song." By "Pull a U," a kind of regurgitated "Come Together," Hince was hacking in the shadows and Mossheart was standing on her monitors and they looked like an evil, trashy Eurhythmics.
That drum machine, though -- sometimes it held them back. Mosshart appeared to resist the slow tempo of "Satellite," slumping through the reggae beat as if asking, "Are we there yet?" Other times, she gave in to the slow-down ("You Don't Own the Road") and turned into Alannah Myles. They'd be hotter with a live rhythm section supporting their whims and stolen moments.
As it was, though -- wham, bam, next jam. That urgency ratcheted up the already palpable tension. Mosshart added to the menace, often pacing the stage in circles like Darth Maul, waiting with furious patience for another fighting chance at the mike. After four albums and her celebrated detour with White, a mighty force is largely still with her.