[5 June 2012]
Do you remember the Hives? No? Well, you probably should, because once upon a time they audaciously demanded to be your new favourite band. Whether or not they’ve managed to hang on to that title is another matter entirely. After all, that was the beginning of the century. Times have certainly changed, and they have had to face up to garage rock revivalism’s fall out of favour, as if the listening public suddenly developed a morbid fear of guitars. This means that they seem even more out of place than they did a decade ago. Back then they were, you know, being retro. They had a strong, smartass aesthetic – suited and booted throwbacks to another world, another music industry. Nowadays, though, they seem retro twice-over, retro-twice removed. And, unfortunately, Lex Hives shows them up as a mere mirage: a fantasy band from a fantasy 1960s refracted through the warped double glazing of the early 21st century.
On Lex Hives, we’re supposed to see the band stripping back the approach they went for on 2007’s The Black and White Album. They’ve kicked out all the producers and engineers (like Pharrell Williams and Jacknife Lee) whose presence cluttered that album up. Instead, they’ve preferred to produce the record themselves in the self-styled “Hive Manor” in the name of stripping back the sound. But, really it doesn’t look like they’ve done much stripping back at all, and it all seems geared towards the idea of progression without ever making it clear what it is they’re progressing towards.
One thing is made very clear on Lex Hives: the opulent Hive Manor is a long way from the grimy garage. It all seems too clean, too polished, and too shiny. Now and then, there are little hints of the raw power of their early work. But generally it all seems so sadly professional. It pilfers bits and pieces from pop music’s past, mining some dirty hard rock on “I Want More”, stealing lines from the Paul Weller Songbook on “These Spectacles Reveal The Nostalgics” and picking and choosing from rather traditional punk rock (“Patrolling Days”), new wave (“Wait a Minute”), and even a bit of gospel (“Without the Money”) along the way. This would be all well and good if the tunes were there. But they just aren’t. There’s nothing as madly memorable as their early stuff, and even the addition of blaring saxophones on closer “Midnight Shifter” can’t push it into the red.
Ultimately the title “These Spectacles Reveal the Nostalgics” says it all. It’s too easy to differentiate between all the musical ingredients, too easy to see how the plan unfolds, too easy to see that lots of their ideas are long past their sell-by date. All the edges are smoothed out, refined, turned into a strange, lumpy paste. It’s as if they’re a bit too old to really go all out with the bratty blasts of punk noise that we once knew and loved.
It’s a real shame, as if they’ve forked out a fortune fitting electric doors to their tiny, untidy garage and then thrown out all the amps in favour of a mid-life-crisis-mobile. Just note how the promise of snarling, gnarly opener “Come On!” is left unfulfilled. In typically Hives-style, it only just breaks the minute mark, while, on the other hand, mid-album, we get “Patrolling Days”, which goes on for a whole four minutes, racking up more time than any other song the band have ever recorded.
Basically, Hive Manor is just an excuse for the band to give us a guided tour through the Hives’ Hall of Influences. Once upon a time, the band themselves would have been happy to damage the exhibits and deface the busts. But, on Lex Hives, all we’re left with is a snarkily written full-colour brochure. As much as they’ve tried to sound like their dragging their sound back to basics, it sounds like they’ve lost something along the way. Who knows if they’ll ever get it back.