Hot Hot Heat, ‘Elevator’ (Sire/Warner Bros.)
Release Date: November 15, 2018
Label: Sire/Warner Bros.
Back in the day, new wave meant different things to different people. For some it was a way to add a little bump’n’grind to punk rock, a music that seemed to consider sex, in the immortal phrase of Johnny Rotten, “two minutes and 52 seconds of squelching noise.” It was also, in a time before Nirvana and Green Day, a way of making punk palatable for the mass market: less scary, more melodic, more danceable, more photogenic. The first music video ever played on MTV, the Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star,” was textbook new wave–camp vocals, polyester riffs, indelible tune. It was also very annoying. But never mind that.
The pressing question is, why, aside from the obvious desire of Johnny-come-latelies to Xerox the success of Franz Ferdinand, are we in the midst of a raging new-wave resurgence? The following review offers no explanation beyond this: At core, new wave is simply fun and sexy, and at the moment there seems to be a hunger, perhaps even a faintly desperate hunger, for things that are simply fun and sexy.
Slightly ahead of the curve with both this ’80s revival business and the Buy Canadian! rock movement, Hot Hot Heat initially had to worry only about what yelps and stutter riffs sounded good, not what spin on Alex Kapranos’ wardrobe or on Carlos D.’s hair might set the Hot Hot Heat’s undying search for the new new-wave grail masses frothing. So in 2001 they kicked out a promising self-titled EP, then a better EP (Knock Knock Knock) in 2002, and an even better follow-up album (Make Up the Breakdown). Singer Steve Bays bit off big chunks of Joe Jackson and Elvis Costello and the guy in XTC who Dogs Die in Hot Cars are so keen on and chewed them into a mouthful of mauled vowels and glottal spasms. Nothing fancy, just four shaggy guys representing with circus-flavored organ riffs, herkyjerk guitars, blinding-bright choruses, and sloppy dance moves.
Evidently at a loss for what else to do, major labels came along anyway. And without overthinking it, HHH have made their semi-bigtime record just right: fatter guitars and drums, tighter choruses, dressier arrangements. Basically the same thing–improved. There’s slightly less genre-aping and some varying of dynamics. Maybe guitarist Dante DeCaro has been studying the onstage twitching of Franz’s Nick McCarthy (though he’s got seizure-rock moves of his own). For a group who seemed cheerily disposable, ready to make the jump to grad school and take their place as future footnotes, they sound like they might be in it for the long haul.
Bays fully understands that new-wave vocals are about percussion and repetition, and he sings his like a caffeinated cognitive scientist. Everything from his band’s name to the verses and song titles (“Goodnight Goodnight,” “Jingle Jangle,” “You Owe Me an IOU”) sling internal rhymes, echoes, and alliteration–mnemonic devices precision-engineered to hijack your hippocampus. Where there aren’t literal repetitions, Bays stretches vowel sounds like a turntablist; he may be “running out of ti-i-yi-yiyime” on the opener, but he’s not so rushed that he can’t toss a few dozen extra syllables into his spiel. And while he doesn’t have an especially rich voice, his delivery is as distinctive as any new-jack rocker, Jack White included.
What’s he on about? Trainwreck girlfriends, has-been celebs, uncomputable relationships, a dead soldier, more train-wreck girlfriends. I only know that from reading the lyric sheet, and honestly, it doesn’t matter much. Elevator is about sound, not content. If Hot Hot Heat lack the realpolitik barbs of Gang of Four or the hyperliterate bile of early Elvis Costello (who doesn’t?), they still rock a party. In “Pickin’ It Up,” a repeat-worthy hookfest like Make Up’s”Oh, Goddamnit,” Bays waxes ambivalent about the examined life: “Why do I have to be bored with being foolish and young?” he asks. You don’t, dude. You’re really good at it. And for as long as you can get away with it, it seems like a totally excellent way to make a living.