Over the past few years, many young guitar bands, heavily influenced by early 1980s new wave and post punk, have been putting out good, sometimes great, material, be it The Strokes, Interpol, Hot Hot Heat, or The Rapture. Despite their steadily growing popularity, those bands have yet to really connect with mainstream audiences, as there has yet to be the one smash single that critics and fans have been hoping for. With Scotland’s Franz Ferdinand, though, the potential for a commercial breakthrough looks good, as the band, who are massively popular in the UK, is steadily making among North American audiences. Still, though, no monster hit. Perhaps this kind of dance-fused, jittery, Anglophile rock music needs some Americanizing. Over on this side of the Atlantic, if you’re a guitar rock band, you’ve got to sound big if you want to be big.
Enter The Killers. At first listen, you’d think they’re just like all those other bands: you’ve got the lead singer who croons in a lower register, complete with faux-British affectations, just like Julian Casablancas, Paul Banks, and Alex Kapranos; there’s the relentless disco beat, the melodic bass lines, the jittery, angular guitar flourishes. However, there’s something in the music by The Killers that all those bands lack: flash. Maybe it’s because they hail from Las Vegas, but whatever the reason, The Killers take that ‘80s revival idea, gloss it up with shiny production, inflate it with a monstrous, booming sound that’s perfect for mainstream rock radio, and under all the glitz, deliver lots and lots of candy-coated hooks.
On their new album, Hot Fuss, The Killers come out sounding ready to take this subgenre to the next level, coming off as brash as Oasis did a decade ago. “Somebody Told me”, the album’s first single, is a perfect example of the band successfully meshing their pulsating, post punk sound with a huge, overblown, arena rock sound. The dance beat is still there, as are singer Brandon Flowers’ mannered vocals, but David Keuning’s overdubbed guitars roar, the rhythm section of bassist Mark Stoermer and drummer Ronnie Vannucci sound thunderous, there’s that great disco-esque touch of “hoo-hoo-ooh” in the bridge, and the fantastic chorus, which is catchy as all get-out, and full of cheeky humor: “Somebody told me you had a boyfriend who looks like a girlfriend that I had in February of last year.”
Opening track “Jenny Was a Friend of Mine” is a spot-on, wonderfully shameless Cure imitation, complete Flowers’ charmingly overwrought depiction of a lover’s spat “on a promenade in the rain.” The new romanticism of “Smile Like You Mean It” is flat-out gorgeous, its sweet chorus and contagious synth melody making this song seem like it’d be a perfect fit on a mid-‘80s John Hughes film, while current UK single “Mr. Brightside” borders on screamo angst during the frantic verses, but is saved by a soaring chorus, as Flowers spouts some more, erm, flowery, poetry, crooning, “Jealousy, turning saints into the sea/Swimming through sick lullabies.” The album’s finest moment is “On Top”, a synthesizer-dominated dance track that has The Killers pulling off a wonderful Duran Duran imitation with pure, unabashed, rosy-eyed euphoria, with Stoermer proving his worth by supplying a terrific, melodic, John Taylor style bassline.
What’s most shocking about Hot Fuss, though, is how, after five sensational songs, the rest of the album completely implodes, as the other six tracks get weighed down by too much production, a lack of memorable hooks, and some inexplicable musical touches that may have sounded clever in the studio, but wind up sounding disastrous on the CD. The point where the album goes all to hell is midway through “All These Things That I’ve Done”, which starts off promising enough, beginning with a sweeping blend of synths, guitars, and thrumming bass and tom toms (a clever combination of Joy Division’s “Atmosphere” and early U2), but the nice little tune suddenly comes to a complete halt, as the band launches into a gospel-fused middle section, complete with a choir; the change is so annoyingly abrupt, so inexplicable, it’s as if you were happily floating on your back in the warm ocean, only to have a cannonball hit you in the gut. The rest of the album fares just as badly, as songs just progressively get worse and worse, especially the Bowie-inspired “Andy You’re a Star”, the flaccid Strokes imitation “Change Your Mind”, and the boring, miserable dirge, “Everything Will Be Alright”.
We in North America should be thankful we don’t have to hear the atrocious “Glamorous Rock & Roll”, the band’s laughable paean to all things indie, which is sadly part of the UK version of the album; the fact that a band like this who makes such an earnest bid for mainstream success, yet tries to admit they still have indie cred, will have indie rock fans groaning in disgust. There’s nothing wrong with shooting for the big time; “Somebody Told Me”, “Mr. Brightside”, and “On Top” all have the potential to do well, and The Killers can certainly be great when they want to, but in the end, despite a few moments of brilliance, Hot Fuss is all style, and very little else.