Jerry Garcia lost most of his right middle finger in a wood-chopping accident when he was four and Black Sabbath’s Tony Iommi saw two of his digits severed in a factory incident when he was 17. Music history is full of ace guitarists who’ve lost appendages yet have triumphed over their handicaps. So when James Hince, the 47-year-old guitarist who makes up half of the Kills, slammed his finger in a car door forcing five operations that rendered it useless, there was some historical precedent he could rebound. Now, five years after 2011’s Blood Pressures, the Kills have returned with their fifth album Ash & Ice — and Hince’s jaggedly enticing fretwork is intact.
Since their 2003 debut Keep on Your Mean Side, Hince and singer Alison Mosshart have crafted songs so seething and simple they make those by fellow boy-girl duo the White Stripes look downright ornate. They’ve expanded their scope here, but not by much: While propulsive riff monsters like “Impossible Tracks” and “Heart of a Dog” might sound bigger than some earlier Kills material, that’s more indebted to Hince and Mosshart’s improved songwriting acumen than heartier production. (Perhaps the flair of Mosshart’s Dead Weather bandmate Jack White rubbed off on the duo.)
But while the rockers on Ash & Ice stand toe-to-toe with the Kills’ best — sweeping closer “Whirling Eye” finds the sweet spot between Neil Diamond’s “America” and ’70s-era CBGB punk you never knew you wanted — the album’s greatest moments are its most reserved. From “Kissy Kissy” to “Pots and Pans,” the Kills have a history of ominous, backporch blues, but on Ash & Ice the melodies finally catch up to that dark vibe. Mosshart remains one of rock’s most dynamic vocalists, and she’s never sounded better than on the broken-hearted piano ballad “That Love.” She also belts without abandon on “Hum for Your Buzz” — almost enough to obscure Hince’s guitar playing which, even down a finger, still towers above most.