When Sahara Hotnights dropped their incendiary Jennie Bomb on an unsuspecting public two years ago, it was not only a reaffirmation of just how good all those Swedish rock 'n' roll bands really were, but even better, proof that the girls could do it just as well as the guys. Sure, bands like Sleater-Kinney and The Donnas are just a small sampling of the fine all-female rock bands out there, but Sahara Hotnights, in particular, play with such precision, and power that is simply on a whole other level, and not only that, but this quartet could really sing, as Maria Andersson's impassioned howl blew The Donnas' flat, sloppy vocals out of the water. All the roaring guitars, propulsive drum beats, and belted-out vocals made for a highly enjoyable time, but as good as the band sounded, Jennie Bomb teetered dangerously above the trap that has lured the likes of The Mooney Suzuki and The Datsuns: redundancy. If it was any longer than its half-hour running time, Jennie Bomb would have worn out its welcome instantly. The ladies came in, and plowed away dutifully for 30 minutes, but instead of leaving you wanting more, you were left hoping that this fine young band would evolve, just a little bit.
Coming right on the heels of the latest Hives album, which, after nearly a three year wait, delivered a solid, albeit same-as-before collection of tunes, Kiss & Tell, to the ladies' credit, dares to bring a little more variety to the table, instead of repeating the whole loud, abrasive, Runaways formula that dominated their early albums. Undoubtedly, skeptics have already seen the new album cover, and perhaps also the band's recent appearance on Conan O'Brien, and scoffed at their improved look, with the nice hair and the more stylish clothes, but this is far from an attempt to become another Donnas, as the music attests.
The difference between Jennie Bomb and Kiss & Tell hits you instantly on "Who do You Dance For?", as the guitars are less distorted, the riffs are much tighter, you get a little hint of synths, and the tidy production by Pelle G and Johan Gustafsson is much more crisp, everything right up front in the mix. It's when Andersson comes in, though, that you hear the best improvement in this band. Instead of trying to shout over layers of roaring guitars, the toned-down riffs finally allow her to show just how much vocal range she has, and the change is like a blast of fresh summer air. If her vocals on Jennie Bomb were more similar to that of The Runaways' Cherie Currie, on the new record, Andersson evokes the sweet-but-tough quality of early '80s singers like Belinda Carlisle and Chrissie Hynde. And if that weren't enough, during the song's deliriously catchy chorus, drummer Josephine Forsman and lead guitarist Jennie Asplund show their own vocal chops, engaging in a cute little call-and-response with Andersson.
The rest of the album continues in the same direction, as the best tracks all sound like they would have made some great Stiff Records singles, circa 1980 (what I'd give to hear them do a hard rock version of Rachel Sweet's "B-A-B-Y"). The fun single "Hot Night Crash" comes closest to matching the garage rock of Jennie Bomb, but those bubblegum-sweet harmonies in the chorus ("I wonder why-y-y") keep it from getting too bland. Even better is "Empty Heart", featuring great vocal harmonies and a killer synth hook, while the jittery "Walk on the Wire" pulsates with Attractions-style tension. "Stay/Stay Away" is terrific, featuring Andersson's best singing on the album, not to mention an irresistible guitar synth melody (think The Strokes' "12:51").
Kiss & Tell hits a small speedbump midway through as "Mind Over Matter", "Stupid Tricks", and "Nerves" just don't match up to the other tracks (though "Stupid tricks" earns points for its great use of organ), but it does manage to end strongly with the keyboard-laden "The Difference Between Love and Hell" and the lighthearted "Hangin'". The band keeps improving each time out, and on this, their third album, Sahara Hotnights have carved themselves a comfy little niche, and while this isn't quite the great guitar pop record that they're capable of making, it's still a fun listen, and their best one yet.