When Hot Hot Heat splashed their way into a typical music fan’s conscience in 1999 with their debut four-song EP, they were, well, a pop band. The Victoria, British Columbia natives combined dance and fun in a way that would later be made commercially successful by such modern-day acts as the Killers and such yesterday acts as Men At Work, the Cars and Duran Duran. It was because of this that the band appeared to be three years too early to the party and nobody really cared. Sure, they had their Canadian fan base, as well as a very, very loyal indie following, but the promise that the Canadian quartet projected was being shunned by almost all major record labels, not to mention radio outlets and television stations.
Then, everything changed. In 2002, heads started to turn with the release of Make Up the Breakdown, an album that won a Canadian Independent Music Award for best album, and validated every hipster’s prediction that the band was good enough to be larger than what they were. Major labels took notice of the growing buzz, and before anyone could say “Morrissey”, the band reached music’s Mt. Rushmore by finally getting signed to that major label—in this case, Warner Bros.
The impending effort, Elevator, a commercial flop, somewhat alienated the group’s core fans and, in the meantime, never really compensated for their losses by bringing in new, TRL-watching hopefuls. All in all, the band had become everything they once swore they would never touch, as they not only got tagged as “sell outs”, but also found themselves locked in a deal with a major label and, to top it all off, they even lost a guitar player in the process.
So what does all of this mean? Well, it means what it usually means for bands that find themselves looking for answers and direction after having been the “next big thing” for six-and-a-half minutes –- they turn around and make the best album of their career. Not only is Happiness Ltd. an album that not even their longest of long-time fans could have expected, but it is the first time that Hot Hot Heat has made an album that deserves to be heard by millions, not thousands.
On this latest effort, the quartet takes their signature Britpop/indie sound and polishes it to the point that it becomes bigger than life. Sure, we can still dance, sing along and tap our feet to anything Happiness Ltd. offers, but it’s the band’s mature tone and dive into gigantic Springsteen-like stadium rockers that set their latest release above any of their others.
Songs like “Outta Heart” and “Happiness Ltd.” are an awfully good (albeit blatant) stab at modern pop-rock radio. “Outta Heart” is a love-torn tale that feels more like it came from the Ryan Cabrera side of the spectrum, rather than the Ryan Adams position that they have taken for what has proven to be too long. Then, “Happiness Ltd.”, the album’s opening title track, bubbles up to an eventual climax that is simply not made to be performed in 500-seat clubs. While the group shouts, “It’s over now!” during the final minute of the song, one can only envision the house lights going up and a $300 million light show backing such a huge sounding band.
“Let Me In”, the album’s first single, makes absolute sense. While more than half of Happiness Ltd. could easily be used as a break-through single, only on “Let Me In” does the band find a perfect combination of what it was that got them to the party, and then what it was that made sure they weren’t going home alone. As the chimes ring gloriously in the background, the chorus proves to be both aggressive and heart-warming, while the verses make you feel something is on the fringe, forcing any listener to wonder what may be around the corner.
And that’s not even where the band is at its finest. “My Best Friend”, “Conversation”, and the album’s best track, “5 Times Out Of 100”, take Hot Hot Heat’s signature up-beat sound and water it down just enough to make it accessible in a way that deserves to be heard. “My Best Friend” showcases the dancetastic flavor that any listener has grown to expect, and “Conversation” is quite simply “You Owe Me An IOU” part two (and that’s a really, really good thing).
But nothing can touch “5 Times Out Of 100”. On this track, not only does Hot Hot Heat bring the funkiest guitar anyone north of the border has ever brought to the party, but it’s awkward piano/vaudeville-ish vibe combines to make this a perfect experiment for the band to try. And this, of course, added with lead singer Steve Bays’ signature high-pitched guttery drawl, proves to be one of the three best songs the band may ever write.
So once again, the curse of a flopped major label debut turns into a blessing of a brilliant follow-up. The only problem for the boys from Victoria now may be trying to follow this one up. Regardless though, one thing is certain—with an album such as this, it’s hard to believe that their happiness is nearly as limited as it once was.