It’s a good thing the song called “Doing It to Death” is the first on Ash & Ice, because if it was the last it might be funny. Don’t worry; the visually dramatic but professionally stoic Kills haven’t suddenly developed a self-deprecating sense of humor. Like a sullen café server, Ash & Ice does exactly what you expect it to for slightly longer than you’d like it to take, with the minimum of authentic excitement. It is an acceptable listen — on par with the Kills’ previous record, 2011’s Blood Pressures — but your best hope for enjoying it is to manage your expectations. Frontwoman Alison Mosshart’s success as a member of Jack White’s more dynamic and variegated supergroup, the Dead Weather, hasn’t brought comparable texture to her main gig with guitarist Jamie Hince.
Either way, 13 songs is a long time to listen to a band whose idea of pacing is driving the speed limit. Fixing the tempo somewhere between slow and moderate doesn’t help, but the lack of energy goes beyond the drum machine. “When I hear your name / It’s like a freight train / Shake, shake, shake, shakin’ me / Off my tracks,” is perhaps the least original line ever set to blues-based rock, but it’s the entirety of the chorus to “Days of Why and How,” and it goes by about as quickly as a freight train, too.
It’s not like the Kills have stopped putting hooks in songs, even if none of them are as snappy as the one from “Sour Cherry” that won you over in the first place. If you could only see the guitar tabs, Ash & Ice would appear chock-full of juicy riffs. In reality, it appears to pull off enjoyable moments in spite of itself. An interesting bit of fretwork can’t save “Let It Drop” from lyrical clichés (“You’re giving me reasons to turn my teardrops into death threats”) and a pervading sense of airlessness. The bridge of “Siberian Nights” has a sunny, Sheryl Crow-like quality, but the rest of the track hovers and nags. Two-thirds of the way through Ash & Ice comes “That Love,” a slow piano ballad that’s the exact analog of the slow piano ballad from the two-thirds mark on Blood Pressures (“The Last Goodbye”). Each of these is a competent song, but in context they feel as obligatory and stilted as a high-school slow dance.
The good news: “Impossible Tracks” burns rubber like vintage Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, and the satisfyingly soulful “Hum for Your Buzz” showcases Mosshart’s smoker’s voice better than anything else on offer. Standout “Bitter Fruit” is a steam piston of a roots-rock song, and something in how she delivers the line “I could pray, but can’t you see / The kinda things I pray for, they’re kinda things I need” conveys a sense of urgency absent elsewhere.
It’s to Mosshart’s credit as a musician that her close association with White has enhanced and refined her career, rather than overshadowing it. (When’s the last time you listened to Brendan Benson solo?) Her stint in the Dead Weather means the Kills continue to find an audience now that the White Stripes and the Black Keys are no longer two of the five most influential rock bands working. But if there’s really such a market for the Kills’ taut, minimalist riff-shtick, why does their method of selling it feel like such grim pastime?