Oh boy. How exactly do you begin a review with an album that has sleeve art like Hot Cakes? Admittedly, rock is no stranger to lurid, oversexed photography; if you look at any number of releases in between the Cars’ Candy-O and the Darkness’ debut LP Permission to Land, you’re bound to find any number of pictures depicting women in poses so over-the-top you know that only a testosterone-raged male rock musician could have come up with it. For the Darkness, this overt silliness was integral to the success of Permission to Land, without a doubt the only excellent album they’ve put out so far. There they managed to both play classic-style rock and roll while also highlighting the genre’s most ridiculous aspects, all with tongue firmly in cheek. The group did it with aplomb, and for awhile they made some true, authentic rock and roll. But there is a danger in flaunting these particular aspects of rock; had I not known anything about the backstory of these Brits, the words “raging misogyny” would have come to mind.
Unfortunately, though, those words are still in my head by the time I’ve finished listening to Hot Cakes. The greatest threat the Darkness faced after the success of Permission to Land was being branded as a one-joke band, or if you’d like to attribute a little more seriousness to their craft, a one-trick pony. Their sophomore outing, One Way Ticket to Hell… and Back, took the womanizing up a notch, as heard on cuts like the oh-so-funnily named “Knockers”, whose chorus comprised of the line, “I just love what you’ve done with your hair.” It’s funny for a spin or two, but after awhile doing a really good impression of a Spinal Tap-esque group of bumbling rockers loses its effect. What kept this formula from completely failing were moments of ironic-yet-honest sincerity, such as “Dinner Lady Arms” (“I may not be your Mr. Right / But I’m happy to be your Mr. That’ll-Do-For-Tonight”). But by invoking that tenuous balance, the Darkness have always set themselves up to fail easily.
Clearly something in their way of doing things caused a rift, because for awhile the Darknesses disbanded, resulting in some very regrettable side projects (Justin Hawkins had British Whale and Hot Leg; the rest had Stone Gods). Now they’ve reconvened for Hot Cakes, featuring the lineup initially seen on Permission to Land (bassist Frankie Poullain returns after his absence on the second LP). Not long into this affair, it’s pretty evident that the one-joke concern no longer exists just in the abstract. Hot Cakes is a lot like the guy who comes back to your high school reunion still hoping that you’ll all laugh at the only good joke he ever told. After hearing it repeated 20 times, it still isn’t that funny. Despite his unrelenting enthusiasm, it’s obvious that what you thought was gold almost ten years ago hasn’t aged well. At all.
Just to make sure you aren’t worried about the band losing their ribald sense of humor, lead singer Justin Hawkins (who has decided to adopt the Jack Sparrow look to, presumably, freshen things up) shouts “suck my cock!” after only a minute into opener “Every Inch of You”. The whiskey-drenched George Thorogood riff that forms the backbone of that cut is like most of the guitar work here: well-executed, but without any flourishes that distinguishes it from banal pastiche. As the brilliant “Love Is Only a Feeling” attested to on Permission to Land, these guys can write a killer ballad with a great hook, but on Hot Cakes all the ballads are serviceable at best. The album’s two best tracks, “Living Each Day Blind” and “Love Is Not the Answer”, rise to B-side quality at best. The latter draws heavily from the self-deprecating humor that sold songs like “Seemed Like a Good Idea At the Time” with only minimal success.
Though Hot Cakes is mostly comprised of lukewarm, middling cock-rock, it isn’t without its egregious missteps. What prompted Hawkins & Co to think this was a good idea I’m not sure, but in what will go down as one of the worst cover versions in history the group decided to cover the moody track that concluded Radiohead’s alt-rock masterpiece The Bends, “Street Spirit (Fade Out)”. The clean guitar of the original has been replaced with an old-school metal assault, setting fire to whatever beauty was present in the first place. I can’t tell if the band thought they were being edgy, but what they come off as is hopeless amateurs. Despite whatever success they may have had with their debut, the Darkness’ return clearly signifies that the major problems underlying their style have come to the forefront, leaving the cheeky humor and catchy riffs that we all liked not too long ago in the dust. Try as they may, slathering this in syrup won’t make it go down any sweeter.