The saying goes, “all roads lead to Rome.” But the Hives must have jumbled the translation and thought it was, “all riffs lead to the Ramones.” Not a common mistake, but an understandable one considering these screwball Swedes got their English lessons from watching Saturday Night Live reruns miles away from anything resembling bright lights or big cities.
The batshit garage rockers played NYC’s Terminal 5 on the summer solstice. It was a midsummer night’s dream with the punkest Puck, Howlin’ Pelle Almqvist, at the helm, cat walking, crowd surfing, and spinning his bowler hat.
At one point, he refused to play until the entire crowd sat on the floor. Those on the upper perches hid behind rims of watery gin and tonics, watching the poor groundlings sit in beer-soaked squalor. “Everyone,” Pelle croaked with eyes directed above. Well, Caligula would have blushed.
Enter Lex Hives. The first self-produced album from their new label, Disques Hives, leaves no itch unscratched. It’s packed with furious guitars, goofball lyrics, and knock-em-dead drums (watching Chris Dangerous move is surreal.) But, believe it or not, the album is comparatively stripped down. The music demonstrates control. The album’s wildest songs, “If I Had a Cent” and “These Spectacles Reveal the Nostalgics” definitely would’ve been the last-picked players on the Veni Vidi Vicious team.
Did the Hives just make their (gulp) Nebraska?
Maybe. The album single, “1000 Answers”, played mid-set, even has the vaguely Springsteenian refrain “I got a thousand answers, one’s gotta be right / Give me a thousand chances and I’ll get it right.” Thank God Dr. Matt Destruction’s raucous bass line was there to drown out lyrics that divulge Springsteenian topics like paying bills and loneliness.
On Lex, Pelle remains in his lower register, rarely, if ever, hitting the scatter-brained yelps that were riddled throughout Tyrannosaurus Hives. But control isn’t necessarily a negative. These minor changes, coupled with amped up production and a slower tempo, make this album their most listenable yet.
The band caught some critical smirks for their fogey-ish sampling of E.L.O.’s “Don’t Bring Me Down” on the track “Go Right Ahead”. But, hey, there are worse moves a young band can make than throwing a bone to pop maestro, Jeff Lynne.
They opened the show, like the album, with “Come On!”, a crowd-pleasing, three-word dense song that careened into “Try It Again”, an excellent track from the Black and White Album, offering the sage words, “They say the definition of madness is doing the same thing and expecting a different result / That’s right / Doo wacko.”
It’s hard to say where the Hives fall on that scale. Like the comedians they grew up watching, the Hives have more fun with musical imitation than musical innovation. Their few lyrical heroes come from American stereotypes: the schoolboy doing lines on the chalkboard (“Walk Idiot Walk”), the office drone (“Supply and Demand”), the cash-flushing CEO (“Die, All Right!”), and so on. The characters aren’t illuminated so much as they are animated. The same goes for their music, where hyper-irritated three-chord riffs seem more like caricature than adaptation.
This is part of the reason people didn’t quite get them during the rock revival of the early 2000s. For a while, they seemed like Jack White’s embarrassing foreign cousins showing up to his gig with instruments. They have faux-CBGB’s style nicknames, matchy-match black and white suits, and moves like Jagger to boot. But the kids were into it. Veni Vidi Vicious caught fire with MTV for its incendiary “Main Offender”, a song that also emblematized the Hives’ role in pop culture: “I’m stuck in ways of sadistic joy / And my talent only goes as far as to annoy.”
The White Stripes, the Strokes, even the Vines: rock n’ roll was back, and these guys had concepts, damn it. The Hives were, comparatively, like Kristin Wiig’s “Little Hands” sketch. Their early catalogue has songs like “Hail Hail Spit N’ Drool” and “Bearded Lady”. While the Seven Nation Army was bleeding on the field, the Hives were running around the camp, making a mess with the gunpowder, and rhyming “schmuck” with “rock.”
Their shows sometimes feel like the Sex Pistols teetering on the Gong Show. Howlin’ Pelle is a razzle ’em dazzle ’em style showman, so he is right at home in New York City. He loves the banter as much as the bark, and with a little seniority to stand on, it’s entertaining to see how none of the limelight is squandered on this band.
That night, their biggest songs seemed bigger. “Walk Idiot Walk” and “No Pun Intended” sounded brand new. Guitarist Nicholaus Arson, Pelle’s brother, was practically having a conniption during “Won’t Be Long”. The hits from The Black and White Album were so great that they snuck in a few new songs like “Wait a Minute” and “My Time Is Coming” without much notice. The bratty hip-shaker “Hate to Say I Told You So” back-to-back with “Tick Tick Boom” had the whole place airborne.
From rule breakers to rule makers, Lex Hives proves the band intends to ride their paper airplane all the way to the pantheon. Who knew these rock ‘n’ roll clowns would be the last band standing?
Well, you know what they say: ‘He who laughs best, laughs last.’