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Do the Killers 

The Killers aren't reinventing the rock wheel, but they are repopulating the dance floor

Wednesday, Aug 25 2004
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You know how every time you go to a wedding, your cousin or your high school best friend's idiot boyfriend or somebody at some point feels the need to get on the dance floor and do a bit of the Robot? And you're a little embarrassed for him, but at the same time it is actually kind of amusing in an "Oh, I've had too much champagne, but God, remember when we were kids and weren't the '80s funny?" kind of way?

Well, that's kind of what the Killers are like -- a rather played-out yet innocuous little trip down memory lane that's even better when your personal memory lane is all nice and repaved with copious amounts of alcohol. Hot Fuss, the band's recently released debut album, has had critics and industry wonks on both sides of the Atlantic crowding onto the floor to get in on the Killers' hard, shiny, new-wave-by-way-of-U2 chicken dance.

It's an uninteresting tale, really: In 2002, four guys (singer/keyboardist Brandon Flowers, guitarist David Keuning, bassist Mark Stoermer, and drummer Ronnie Vannucci) from Vegas, renowned in the music world as Celine Dion's home away from home and Britney Spears' favorite spot for quickie marriages, bond over a self-avowed passion for Oasis. Said guys quickly discard the whole Oasis thing in favor of the retro rock sound all the kids have been crazy for the last couple of years. The U.K. press pisses itself to get on board, and the next thing you know, the Killers are on The O.C.

To hear Flowers tell it, though, the fervor over his band has little to do with the mainstream's desire to cash in on a hipster scene and more to do with the public's desire for something new under the TRL sun. "There's been this whole nü-metal and pop-punk thing, and it needed a change. Real songs, you know ... I mean, I don't think people are going to be looking back at, you know, Creed in 20 years and saying, 'Oh my gosh,' you know?"

Indeed, Creed's Human Clay will probably never achieve the status of, say, Abbey Road, but then again, are the Killers, a band that at times sounds like the Cure left out overnight under a McDonald's heat lamp, really going to be the vanguard of the new "real music" everyone's so cranked up about? Maybe, maybe not. The Killers have been lumped in with bands like the Strokes and the White Stripes as the saviors of alternative rock, set to take the genre back to its raw, creative, indie origins. Flowers agrees with the comparison: "Now it seems like there's more bands, like us, whoever it is, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and things like that, you know, we all put our own clothes on and write our own songs and we like great music. And it all comes across a lot more real to people, I think."

For the original "The" bands of the new millennium, that "realness" meant a sound riddled with the grit of rock's days in the garage and the dust from your grandpa's collection of classic R&B 45s. Lately, more bands are taking the Interpol approach to roots rock, all Ian Curtis pathos and Morrissey moodiness, which is where the Killers fit in.

Shimmering onto the scene in a triumphant blaze of dully glinting synthesizers and glammy guitars, the band wields an eerily familiar sound, like something once blasted from your baby sitter's boyfriend's IROC-Z. But while I personally prefer my Morrissey impersonators to be of the poignantly breathy persuasion (à la Aveo's William Wilson), there's something to be said for Flowers' arrogantly detached crooning.

"Smile Like You Mean It," for example, smacks of glistening, Reagan-era mainstream post-punk despair, with Flowers' keys sirening in and out of his studiedly apathetic vocals. "Somebody Told Me," the first U.S. single from Hot Fuss, builds a fort of Commodore 64 blips around a pulsing bass, then busts out of it with the contemptuous, gender-bending, dance-fever chorus that's got everyone's panties in a bunch: "Somebody told me/ You had a boyfriend/ Who looked like a girlfriend/ That I had in February of last year."

You see how I can't stop with the '80s references, a bad habit for which Flowers would probably scold me severely in his politely wasted way, as he did when I asked him if the band felt invested in the '80s revival. "No, I don't really think of us like that. ... I actually kind of thought that had come and gone, that whole new-wave type of thing. ... I do like a lot of the '80s new-wave stuff, I do. But I just, I like David Bowie just as much, you know, from the early '70s. I like John Lennon."

In fact, the Killers have much bigger, Beatlemaniacal dreams than merely getting in on a localized, cult trend. When asked about how being from Vegas influences the band's sound, Flowers' response spoke to his larger goals: "I watched the other [Vegas] bands worry so much about these small gigs that didn't mean anything. I mean, it meant something to play out, but they worried, you know, about other local bands. ... My head wasn't with the local scene, it was always above it."

So far, this not-so-diabolical plan to reach beyond niche or provenance seems to be working. Just about every major music publication and entertainment section has had its own special, private moment with the Killers lately -- including Teen People, which gave its readers a drool-worthy profile of the Sin City hotties (Have you heard? The Killers are "way more touchy-feely than your average rock band!") and broke down new wave for the tween set.

Contrary to popular jaded hipster belief, mainstream success does not necessarily equal sudden artistic death -- if your kid brother hears your favorite band on the WB, it also doesn't necessarily mean that band must have sold both its soul and its creative ability for a pile of sticky, teenage cash. Pop is pop and even Hilary Duff has her merits and purpose (yes, she does). If the Killers are pop-fluff, and better for it, fine. The danger comes when the big labels start clamoring to sign any band that smells even remotely of the new hot indie scene and then put a big, sparkly "It Came From the Underground" stamp on it. I mean, at the risk of dredging up the hackneyed old "alternative to what?" debate, isn't Creed pretty much a direct offshoot of the last time the public demanded some new "real music" (i.e., grunge)?

The Killers, however, aren't worried about becoming the integrity-less poster boys for dumbing down rock. Flowers expresses some distaste for insular indie snobbery, saying, "I mean, if I made chairs, I would want people to buy my chairs, you know? So I don't care if it's a cool person, I don't care if it's somebody people think is an idiot, you still want them to buy it. I want as many people to hear it as possible. ... We all like the big bands, and we're not afraid to be one."

Unfortunately, the Killers' musical dreams of grandeur fall a little flat whenever the new album tries to be something more than just mild, pleasant, familiar pop. "All These Things That I've Done," for instance, is a bit too anthemic for its britches, but manages to just barely rein in the overkill -- that is, until the gospel choir kicks in. Despite my own predilection for overblown theatrics (and Rolling Stone's hard-on for the track), I don't really find Flowers' "world-weary" voice backed by a choir chanting "I got soul, but I'm not a soldier" in multipart harmony to be much more than an exercise in pretension.

Hot Fuss is best in its moments of insistently danceable rock, when channeling Ziggy Stardust (or maybe Gary Glitter?) via Spandau Ballet. And as long as we keep that in mind, and don't go around thinking of the Killers as the mainstream crystallization of an underground scene or the second coming of anything (be it Alternative or Oasis), we should be able to get some sweet Robot action going on.

About The Author

Rachel Devitt

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