published: 27 /
In the latest in his 'Condemned to Rock 'n' Roll', Ben Howarth explains the targets he sets out for himself when reviewing new music and his pleasure at discovering new Bath-based blues-influenced act Kill It Kid
In his wise, funny and thoughtful book, ‘31 Songs’ - the best book about pop music available today, which I reference increasingly frequently on these pages and especially in this column - Nick Hornby explains the process by which he sifts through the mass of music he was sent to consider when he occupied the position of the New Yorker magazine’s man in pop:
“You look for evidence of quiet good taste… a moody black and white cover, evidence of violas, a sticker with a quote taken from 'Mojo'”. He also explains the strict criteria he has to stop him wasting his time listening to any music he wouldn’t be interested in, carefully looking for any sign that the music contained within might not be for him, “that it’s for teens, or squares, or ravers, or headbangers, or Conservatives, or anarchists, or just about anyone other than a 44 year old who lives in North London”.
Not un-coincidently, I have adopted almost the same approach. When I’m weighing up the merits of album we have been sent here at Pennyblackmusic, I tend to look for specific, and very limited, criteria before I agree to listen to anything, and immediately rule most things out. If there are comparisons to bands or styles I don't care for or any suggestion that I might have to be confronted by garage-blues riffs, or ambient droning, or meaningless feedback, or any of the many other musical ticks I get irritated by, the offending albums are instantly dismissed without my having heard a note.
This may seem unfair, but it is for the best. I never have to waste my time (or yours) writing about music in which I have absolutely no interest. The downside is that I’m much less likely to be truly startled by the music I review, but the chances of that are fairly small anyway.
Based on a short press bio, a Bath-based band called Kill It Kid, sounded like it might be my kind of thing - references to delta blues and roots, selective use of strings and slide guitar, comparisons to personal favourites Gomez: all very promising.
But I nearly ignored it anyway, and not just because there were also some worrying suggestions of a Frank Zappa influence. Questions marks came from their young age, and in an interview, a clumsy attempt (as a band from the West of England) to defend their decision to play delta-blues. Not huge crimes, I accept, but enough to pose the risk that this album would be too derivative, or too experimental, or boring, or just a talent-free mess.
But there was nothing else I particularly liked the look of, so I took a punt on Kill It Kid. I admit that part of the reason was that they were on a well established label (One Little Indian), the kind that doesn’t like losing large sums of money, and therefore unlikely to release something utterly useless.
But, within thirty seconds of the album going onto my stereo, it was off it again. I was looking at a photograph of four young men and one girl, all seemingly kitted out for a night at their student union, and listening to a strange heavy metal riff combined with a harmonica, and a strange singer bawling about how he killed his girl. It sounded wrong. I turned it off.
Despite the fact that I doubt whether Kill It Kid would really care whether some guy they’d never met criticised them on the internet, I felt that - for professional pride if nothing else - I should force myself to listen to a few more songs, at least, before finally writing the whole thing off.
Thank God I did. And thank God, especially, that I picked the third song ‘Ivy and Oak’, a duet between the band’s two lead vocalists - songwriter Chris Turpin (whose ‘bawling’ quickly reinvented itself as a magnificent impression of Antony and the Johnsons) and pianist Steph Ward. It is good. Damned good in fact, a relentless track that made me quickly think of Antony covering the Hold Steady, before I was swept away into a crazed operatic chorus.
And it wasn’t a fluke - Turpin’s voice sounds great on all the other tracks too, and while you might think that Antony and the Johnsons doing the blues isn’t really what you want to hear, I’m here to say that there’s just something glorious about it (but what that something is exactly, I can’t quite say). Debut single, ‘Send Me An Angel Down’, something of an epic, kills dead any suggestion that these 21 year olds are play-acting.
But where the record really shines is in its reckless innovation and uninhibited imagination. ‘Private Idaho’, sung by Ward, is a folk/country shuffle, with a twist, while ‘Twist The Rain’ is a yearning piano ballad. With both songs, they jump into new genres, but neither are mere genre-exercises - Kill It Kid sound like they could have knocked off an entire album in either style with no trouble at all.
That opening track? The one I dismissed offhand as an embarrassment… its actually a rousing opener, and I quite like it now, though it won’t be the song I play to anyone I intend to introduce to Kill It Kid.
And there, you see, is the reason I keep up this music-reviewing lark. I asked for the sort of thing I assumed I’d want, didn’t get it, and ended up with something else that I’d have wanted an awful lot more.
I’m now a little bit concerned that Kill It Kid might put people off too quickly, just as they did me. Most people don’t review records, they just listen to them, and I’m concerned that potential fans might have closed their web-browser thirty seconds into whichever of the songs is available for sampling on Myspace.
And yet, from this album, I’m sure that lots of people who wouldn’t dream of investigating a band that uses slide guitars and likes delta blues will see Kill It Kid at a festival or as a support act, and be unable to resist. For this is magnificent music - full of fire, bursting with soul, gleaming with actual tunes. Its like the aforementioned (now sadly unfashionable) Gomez doing Bruce Springsteen covers, then trying to make them sound like the Pogues, and then after that, really letting go. Utterly bizarre and oddly moving.
What else can I say? They tour in October, and I intend to be there.