Of all the garage rock revival bands storming our musical beaches during this new millennium, the Hives are by far the sassiest. Part of it is the matching suits. Part of it is the infectious and repetitious riffing over kooky dance beats. Most of it, however, is their scissor-kicking front man, “Howlin’” Pelle Almqvist. Almqvist is quite possibly the sassiest human being alive. Sass oozes out of his every pore. It’s genetically infused in his DNA. Almqvist probably can’t even order a sandwich in a restaurant without waving his fork around like a lunatic, pointing at every waitress he sees, and scrunching his face up like he’s negatively reacting to antihistamine.
Naturally, this extraordinary, almost obscene amount of sass has worked in the Hives’ favor. It’s given the Swedish rockers staying power and kept them visible on the international rock scene. Even before I received this album, I was acutely aware they were still doing stuff together as a band. I cannot say the same for their hipster contemporaries the Strokes or the Vines. I had to Wikipedia both those bands to verify they still existed in this dimension and had not been rocketed into one of our solar system’s many black holes by the super-intelligent race of mole people who dwell beneath the surface of this doomed planet. It also turns out the White Stripes are not animated characters licensed to MTV by the Disney Corporation; they are, in fact, two real actual musicians from Detroit. Oh, the things you learn on the Internet.
Primarily produced by the Neptunes and Jacknife Lee, The Black and White Album comes off sounding slicker than a Slip n’ Slide covered with ranch dressing. I want to say this goes against the Hives’ rough-and-tumble punk roots, but if memory serves, these guys were only raw for one album (1997’s Barely Legal). Since then, it’s been all about sounding like a Verizon commercial/Hillary Duff movie trailer. You need that glossy sheen to produce such an efficient form of lip-sneering, booty-shaking rock music (you don’t hear them playing the Blues Explosion at the Limited, do you?). You also need catchy melodies, which the Hives have in spades here. I defy even Al Gore to hear calculated rave-ups like “Try It Again” and “You Got It All… Wrong” and not at least tap his leaden, environmentally concerned foot. The polar ice caps are melting because of these hot jams, Al. That’s a truth so inconvenient, even you can’t handle it.
There are a few interesting left turns on Black and White. “A Stroll Through Hive Manor Corridors” is an atmospheric organ-driven piece that sounds almost too gritty and real to have come from the likes of these impeccably tailored rock Vikings. Zippy white boy funk is stirred up in “T.H.E.H.I.V.E.S.”, although it should be noted no clue is given as to what this awkward acronym could possibly stand for. The robotic “Giddy Up!” seems to be a Hives tribute to Devo. These deviations prove Fagersta’s number one export is capable of operating outside the realm of cutesy, hand-clapping Cartoon Network rock. There wasn’t really a need for these examples, but I suppose it’s nice to know if we suddenly wake up tomorrow to find every copy of Freedom of Choice deleted from existence, the Hives might be able to fill the void.
Pardon me—Randy Fitzsimmons, the fictional svengali who supposedly writes all the Hives’ material, he might be able to fill the void. The world is still confused about all that. I’m sure it’s just some kind of Swedish joke we’re just not getting. We are talking about a unitary state with no official language, but five legally recognized minority languages (including Yiddish) and an unclear economic model. They also observe three completely different national holidays on one singular day in any given calendar year (April 30: Flag Day, Walpurgis Eve, and the King’s Birthday).
At least the music from Sweden is still making sense. With its spunky energy and grand polish, The Black and White Album should keep our favorite Scandinavian sass masters aloft on the modern rock wave for at least another year. If not, they can always go home and concoct more bizarre ways to joke and live in their generally neutral, liberal constitutional monarchy. Might I suggest a fourth observance for the last day of April? Randy Fitzsimmons Day? You may celebrate by wearing an expensive suit and waving a fork at a waitress.