[13 August 2003]
I know that talking about an album’s artwork or design is a horrible crutch for bad writing. I know. But I feel like Gregg Bernstein’s design for the Red Hot Valentines’ debut full-length, Summer Fling, deserves some credit. Plus, it’s relevant. Bernstein has created a cardboard CD case that has the exact look and feel of a high school steno pad, complete with bar code, penciled doodles, paper tears, scuffs, dirt smudges, and even the old trick of rubbing words into the cover with an eraser to display the band’s name. Moreover, the lyric sheet inside is permanently affixed to the cover and is your classic blue-lined ruled notebook paper effect, with the lyrics shakily handwritten and decorated with plenty of random doodles. While it may not be the most inventive design, it’s extremely well executed.
And, as I said, it’s relevant, because the same description could be given to the music within. With a cover like that, you’d pretty much expect that it’s an album full of crisp little rock songs, probably punk-pop, all of which basically bemoan a teenaged, lovesick life, and you’d pretty much be right. And with the packaging, band name, and album title, you’d expect it to be a little bit obvious. Ah, well, yes and no.
Music critics love to get excited and start throwing around hyperbole whenever an act comes out with a sound that seems to marry a multitude of styles into one product. These bands often get hailed as a “promising new direction for sound”, or “revitalizing an otherwise vacuous scene”. If anything, the Red Hot Valentines prove that this isn’t always the case, and that blending a few styles isn’t always a revolution in music worthy of mountains of praise. In taking strains of power pop, punk-pop, a little indie rock nerdiness, the bright and plain vocals of Toby Kirk and company, and new wave keyboards that play smack dab in the middle of the fields of the Rentals and, most noticeably, the Cars, the Red Hot Valentines have created a sound that is, like Summer Fling‘s cover design, not very inventive, but well executed. From Weezer to Jimmy Eat World, and on down the line of light punk-pop, the Red Hot Valentines are in comfortable company and not looking to buck any trends.
But if that seems like an indictment, you’re wrong again. The Red Hot Valentines know that what they’re doing may not be fresh and new, but they do know how to do it well. The Red Hots are like the plucky, tagalong little brother: quick with a smile, nice kid, a little simple maybe, but all of a sudden he’s got your back and he surprisingly winds up having something to contribute in the end. A cursory listen to Summer Fling is pretty tame. Some nice riffs here, a few hooks here and there, and really, most of your attention is focused on Tyson Markley’s abilities with a Moog. Really, it’s almost as if the Cars’ “Just What I Needed” got injected into ten songs of twenty-first century standard punk-pop. It may be gimmicky, but it helps place the Red Hots in a different camp than Sum 41 and the rest of their ilk.
And that Moog brings you back for a second listen, which is perhaps the best thing that the band has going for it in terms of having a shot at making it. Because when you do go back, you realize that some pretty great guitar licks and power pop solos are wedged into the songs in between the spacey keyboards. The Red Hot Valentines have already successfully transitioned themselves into the whole Warped Tour caravan, having just played a stop in their Illinois home, but you can also imagine these kids learning some Cheap Trick songs and competing as a cover band with ease.
Still, for all that, Summer Fling is a youthful, just-shy-of-sugary pop album that is more notable for its instrumentation than its songs. In other words, aside from a few sticky melodies, it’s largely forgettable. The lyrics lack any real depth beyond the standards of lovesick songwriting, the vocals are melodic but never stand out from the crowd, and these songs suffer from a fair amount of similarity to one another. “All You Get” is the obvious first single, both because it features the Red Hots at their power-poppiest, and because it fits the anthemic mold. It’s a great song, individually, and catchy enough to catch your notice, but you’d never know it wasn’t by one of their peers. However, it’s the fact that they had the guts to throw a vocal-and-acoustic ballad with a slight hint of country-folk (“I Want To”) in the middle of this album, daring to sound like Train on a punk-pop disc, that I give credit to. Or the sporadically excellent guitar solos that you find in the interludes on songs like “Pocket Full of Secrets” and “Don’t Bother”. But it’s not really enough.
Ultimately, the Red Hot Valentines are playing in a genre that’s already saturated with bands, and their non-rebellious songs about love and geekiness are probably only going to play well in the bedrooms of high school girls. I mean, if you really like the Cars (and you should), then you’ll probably hear those keyboard parts and find this disc charming but a bit frivolous. If not, then it will probably seem like what it is: a band doing what they do, and doing it well, but still doing something that hundreds of other bands are doing as well.