w/ La Luz, Verdigrls, July 17, 9 p.m., BAR, 254 Crown St., New Haven, barnightclub.com.
Your parents already won the Game of Life for you. Your trust fund makes you more money than any job ever would. Still, you're not happy: What's left to do, aspire to, live for? When you feel sad, will anyone sympathize, ever?
That's sort of what lies behind Kids in L.A., the second album by indie-pop duo Kisses: upper-middle-class comforts rub against shallow existential crises, while sanitized melodies, disco tics and sometimes crushingly banal lyrics float by, like a Xanaxed-out high-schooler coasting through senior spring.
It's not exactly a concept album, nor are its ideas ever explicitly stated in the lyrics. "There isn't a narrative from beginning to end," Jesse Kivel, who founded Kisses with Zinzi Edmundson, told the Advocate. "There's more of a thread on the record that unifies all the songs. Lyrically they're connected. They're coming from a single viewpoint."
Kisses perform at BAR on July 17. The night before we spoke, Kisses played a hometown show at the Troubadour in L.A., where Kivel is from. (Edmundson, he said, is from Providence, R.I.) "The most I feel nervous is during the weirdest shows that nobody is going to be at, the smallest cities," Kivel said. "Those throw me for a loop... You are going on stage to convince people that you are worthwhile rather than celebrating something they already like. That's why I've never liked [industry] showcases... The random people who aren't fans are at your show to make a judgement. You're selling your product on stage. That's psychologically a tough thing to do."
Kivel's other band is Princeton, which he started with his twin brother Matt. They've shared stages with Vampire Weekend and Ra Ra Riot. "When me and my brother express our songwriting, there's a totally different thing going on," Kivel said. "We always had to compromise to work together. With Kisses, the checks and balances are relatively low." The downside to that, he said, is that "if something isn't liked, then that's all on me."
On Kids in L.A., Kivel sings in a detached, affectless style, but he still manages to be expressive. The album stays away from dynamic changes of any kind, it seems, which perhaps mirrors the boredom experienced by its characters, who chafe aloud at problems so minor they're hardly worth verbalizing. The protagonist of "Huddle" wonders: "What's the deal? What's the deal? You and me feel this way/Is it over in the back, don't you know I lost track of us?" It's a 17-year-old in a sexless, high-school love triangle. You wonder: Why is there a song about this?
"One thing that's interested me in my own life is how relative problems are," Kivel said. "We only judge people's achievements on some grand scale. The same applies for problems and anxieties... People judge affluent kids differently growing up. They judge their problems as unessential. That these are trivial problems... In my experience, people are happy or unhappy and stressed out because of how they are wired, not because of circumstance."
Sonically, much of Kids resides in the 1984-88 electronic-pop sweet spot, with staccato guitars, synth drums and square-ish, triadic melodies. When In Rome's "The Promise" (which served as final-scene music in the film Napoleon Dynamite) wouldn't sound out of place on a cassette mixtape with Kisses' "Funny Heartbeat," also a pretty good update of late-'70 yacht rock. A video for "Huddle," shot in vintage '84 tones, is humorous and dramatic, more Against All Odds (without the sex or violence) than Karate Kid. On the road, that's the place to hear Kids, in a convertible; it's sunny, polite, mom-and-pop friendly music, which makes it highly subversive, perfect cover-up material for how teenagers really feel.
Kivel himself isn't affluent, he said, although he admits some of the songs are vaguely autobiographical. On an early press release draft, he initially included Bret Easton Ellis' Less Than Zero as a cultural touchstone, before withdrawing it. Any Andrew McCarthy/James Spader flick would have done fine, really.