Kills Birds – ‘Married’

By Ian Kenworthy

Every band has a story. Every record is a rich melting pot of ideas, inspirations and tales. Each time you listen, you’re not just hearing a song, but the journey to its creation. Kills Birds’ story begins with the meeting of Jacob Loeb from Golden Daze and filmmaker Nina Ljeti. The two hit it off and started writing songs as a hobby; over time their friendship evolved into a band, eventually taking the opening line from one of their first compositions as a name. When their debut album arrived it made waves, garnering praise from the likes of Dave Grohl, Hayley Williams and Kim Gordon, and this sets the stage for album number two. ‘Married’ arrives with a real buzz around it, but is it well-founded or is this something of a horror story?

The good news is these musical maestros know what they’re talking about. Kills Birds have a lot to offer on their second record. While their debut was a blend of grunge textures, here they’re keen to use that sound to tell a similar, but more direct story and it feels very much like a sequel. It’s a concentrated, more streamlined version of what they attempted first time around, one that’s aimed at a wider audience – think Sonic Youth at their most focused, or a more reserved version of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and you’ll understand the vibe. It’s quite a stark sound, giving the guitars’ space to wander, allowing you to pick out the drums and bass while the focus remains on Ljeti’s vocals. The single ‘Cough Up Cherries’ is a great example. Opening with a fast beat it provides a thrilling build-up toward the chorus, only to swerve at the last moment. It’s a clever subversion of your expectations, especially as the guitars thrash and squeal when the chorus finally kicks in. By doing this, they create a sound that is relentlessly exciting and never quite what you expect. It’s a trait shared by many of the songs and they all include a broad spectrum of ideas. For example the opening to ‘Glisten’ recalls grunge’s heyday but restlessly evolves into something else entirely and that’s even before the chorus section plays out.

When discussing songwriting, Loeb points out the aim was to avoid structure and you can really feel this in the way the songs are presented, changing and shifting in a way that holds your attention, while never getting too carried away. These are songs, not experiments and they never wander too far from the point, giving the record a tight focus. Like their debut, ‘Married’ whisks by in around half an hour, and while its pace rises and falls, it has a persistence and propulsiveness that can’t be overstated. At its most obvious ‘Wallowing’ feels like a straight-up punk song, but elsewhere the endlessly changing sound means they can sneak big riffs to maintain drive, notably on the dreamy ‘Reasoning’. This means, you feel constant waves of excitement which only end at the record’s close. This also applies the 26-second interlude ‘Woman’, a blast of distorted noise and yelling, short enough to show off the band’s roughest edge without interrupting the flow.

Each of the band’s members provides an important piece of the puzzle, with bassist Fielder Thomas and drummer Bosh Rothman often shaping a song around Loeb’s guitar sounds but Nina Ljeti is often the focus. The Bosnian-Canadian singer has an interesting style that shifts and changes but isn’t as harsh as a yell but is rarely as smooth as singing. It’s an intoxicating recipe, especially as you’ll often find her pinning the songs together by repeating phrases. This works best on songs like ‘Glisten’ where she makes a statement in a variety of ways, although she’s never anything less than fascinating.  At her most grungey on ‘PTL’ she uses a breathless whisper, which she trades for a pouty expression of the song’s title in what you might call the ‘chorus’, and it really shows her talents. Equally, on ‘Offside’ it feels like Ljeti is almost freestyling which creates a sense of looseness. That said, there’s a real progression from the band’s early work and you don’t get the same tumbling, off-kilter yapping that defined their early songs and as a result this is a more accessible record.

In many ways this album feels like the band’s comfort zone, which you might expect on a sophomore record, yet there’s a constant excitement crackling through these new songs. As an unintended consequence ‘Natalie’ seems remarkably safe. A slightly more measured song, it doesn’t quite hit the mark, speaking volumes about the tracks around it. That said, it’s not even a misstep, the song is in keeping with the others and is important to the overall tapestry.

Returning to the band’s story, it’s fascinating how far the right contacts will get you. While their first album was apparently thrashed out in one eight-hour session with minimal overdubs, this time they were invited to Studio 606 to record on Dave Grohl’s Sound City desk. The difference is obvious, and although their debut was crisp with wide-range of flavours, here the sound has more zest and expands the alluring depth. You can still hear the separate elements and how each is shaping the sound, but they are neatly blended. It’s easy to pick up on the detuned guitar sound on ‘Cough Up Cherries’ or the bass line leading into ‘Good Planning’ but everywhere there are interesting tones and choices that make the album so rich. So, while they have captured a fast, slick sound, they haven’t lost anything by taking more care.

Kills Birds have distilled the exhilaration and experimentation of Sonic Youth into short bursts. ‘Married’ takes the elements that made the band’s first record so exciting and extrapolated them in a number of ways. You get the sense it doesn’t quite live up to your expectations, but nothing could, and it still manages to excite and fascinate in equal measure.

‘Married’ is an accomplished and artful piece of work, by taking the best elements of their debut they have created a streamlined and frequently thrilling new chapter.

IAN KENWORTHY

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