I’m having trouble getting a handle on a slew of new rock acts. Following the trail (if not always the sound) of Franz Ferdinand, groups like the Killers, the Kaiser Chiefs, Kasabian, and the Bravery have been bringing rock that’s eminently catchy, frequently derivative, and too often forgettable. Part of the problem lies in these groups taking a similar NME-related path to indie stardom at nearly the same time. While listeners try to sort out the cream these distinct-yet-related acts (each of whom has catchy singles but flawed albums), Candanian indie band Hot Hot Heat tries to push through the crowd.
Well, maybe not so much with the pushing, seeing as how the punkiness is mostly gone. Based on obvious new-wave keyboards and guitars, Hot Hot Heat continues their updating of mid-‘80s music, but for their third full-length Elevator, the band leans more toward the pop than the rock elements of their sound. They’re still catchy, and still a little dance-y, but the edge is gone, and in some ways it’s a welcome transition. The majority of the new tracks stick immediately, even if you they make you think about just who it is this band reminds you of.
Talking about the band’s previous work, critics tended to jump to XTC and the Cure as ready-made reference points. Those influences remain apparent, but on this disc, Hot Hot Heat owe as much to Paul Weller and mod-pop as they do to Robert Smith and goth rock. The debut single “Goodnight Goodnight” demonstrates this idea, opening with a guitar riff that wouldn’t feel out of place on one of the Jam’s early albums. It’s gives a slight nod to the dance sound that would develop in the ‘80s, but at 2:10, this track feels more suited to a summer car drive than to rocking the club.
With the absence of dance rhythms, though, the album could use some more grit than it has. “You Owe Me an IOU”, for example, sounds like an Aqueduct song—especially the opening hook—but where Aqueduct keeps the production dirty and the sounds unpolished, Hot Hot Heat produce pristine numbers that become more soundtrack to than influence on a day. While Elevator contains no music you’d want to turn off, none of it is music you’d have to hear.
But to criticize the band for its polished sound and straightforward rhythm production is to take the album on terms other than its own. The band’s not looking to be the head of a post-punk revival; it’s here to make catchy tunes. The group doesn’t stop at being poppy, though, adding clever lyrics to the easily-liked music. The lyrics often reveal a vulnerability without accepting whining or asking for sympathy. “Pickin’ It Up”—the disc’s most Cars-indebted track—reveals a narrator hesitating in the midst of a two-day party. It might be petty to pout and fight, but the glamour of the pretty people partying lacks the substance the singer needs. He’s caught and indecisive, but not looking for help.
“Middle of Nowhere” likewise shows a narrator in a complex spot. He’s been hurt and is confused, and he’s going to run. Rather than sneaking off, though, he wants to leave “something to go on” to his lover. In a smart twist at the end, we find out that he’s not leaving a memento, but an invitation. The song foreshadows that moment, but never gives it away, just inviting a second listen in which you hear the song less as an excuse and more as a plea, even if you can’t quite shake that initial reaction.
It’s that careful attention to detail that pushes Hot Hot Heat past many of their peers. Even when the music sounds derivative and the production excessive, the craftily aligned little parts make this album more welcoming than those from most of the other revivalists. Elevator doesn’t do anything brilliantly, but it does its thing well, and sometimes that’s enough.