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POP MUSIC REVIEW

As for that stance, it is so Killer

October 09, 2006|Ann Powers | Times Staff Writer

Halfway through the Killers' tour-opening performance Friday at the Wiltern LG, singer Brandon Flowers raised one arm in a careful curve, as if to signal a balletic stag leap or a hat trick. He really only was gesturing for applause. But this overachiever never strikes any pose casually.

Matador, magician, danseur: The 25-year-old Las Vegas native would be all of that, and the king of rock besides. The Killers sold more than 3 million copies of "Hot Fuss," their 2004 debut, outrunning the other young bands that are reviving rock by mixing new technology (and smart-aleck attitude) with 1980s New Wave, late-era glam and Goth. In Killers hits such as "Mr. Brightside," big hooks and playfully dark lyrics meshed, and Flowers, a Mormon with a healthy interest in debauchery, floridly expressed his conflicted relationship with rock 'n' roll decadence.

On the new album, "Sam's Town," released Tuesday, Flowers is projecting more confidence than ever, and if Friday's reception of rousing numbers including "Bones" and "Read My Mind" is an indication, sales will again be brisk.

Artistically, though, the Killers are in crisis. The album has received some startlingly nasty reviews, partly because its homages to Bruce Springsteen and U2 (the Killers even employed U2's longtime producers, Alan Moulder and Flood) don't capture those artists' glory, and partly because Flowers' vainglorious persona drives critics crazy. Let's just hope he doesn't begin to mistrust the very quality that makes him stand out.

That trait is self-obsession. Whether strutting at the Wiltern with a nervous brio that seemed part demented preacher, part Lothario, or pulling his gusty tenor into a howl and then a falsetto, Flowers presented himself as someone on a journey to discover how to inhabit the skin of a rock star. That quest is the real subject of the Killers' music. Flowers can talk about Springsteen in every interview he gives, but he still has way more David Bowie in him, not to mention some Madonna. As with those self-referential stars, the project Flowers most fervently embraces is perfecting an attitude.

Every historical moment in rock has its essence, one aspect of the music and its culture that reverberates. Dominant artists carry forth that essence. Springsteen, emerging in response to bloated arena rock, returned a sense of populism to the music by emphasizing great stories of everyday people. U2, reacting to punk's palate cleansing, was about reinstating a grand sound; the Edge's huge guitar always meant as much as Bono's philosophies.

But the Killers have merely decent stories and sound. Although Flowers can write lovely metaphors, like "magic soaking my spine" or "my appetite ain't got no heart," his characters are not that vivid. As for sound, it's solid. Bassist Mark Stoermer stood out at the Wiltern, adding a melodic touch to the bash-and-crash of guitarist Dave Keuning and drummer Ronnie Vannucci; Flowers, whose instrument is keyboards, has a powerfully percussive approach to vocal phrasing. Beat-happy synthesizers provide great color too. But the band's musicality is more functional than innovative.

What the Killers do best is stance. That doesn't just mean posing, although Flowers looked sharp -- much-debated mustache and all -- in gray sharkskin. It means understanding one's place in history, and thinking in mythic terms. Flowers is trying to grasp these complexities by moving through various rock archetypes: first the androgynous glitz of the British Bowie lineage, and now its American counterpart, super-heroic earnestness. He's sometimes off the mark, but the attempt counts.

In performance, Flowers' heroism was not earnest; it was fun, a serious game. His fans understood; instead of the heady passion of a U2 or Springsteen crowd, this one projected lighthearted cheer. After all, the Killers' fan base is the "compilation generation," whose scattered tastes and preoccupations make it unlikely that rock, or any one musical form, can serve as a mass unifier.

What's left to ambitious young stars such as Brandon Flowers is the job of sifting through, of seeing what works for his small slice of the pie and what feels irrelevant. If he's smart, Flowers will assume another posture with the next album. There are plenty to try.

ann.powers@latimes.com

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