Hot Hot Heat aren’t afraid of change. In fact, they’re about as far away from the faithful proverb, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” as they can be. But why mess with the formula that brought international success to their sparse, jerky 2002 debut, Make Up the Breakdown? Because they can. Thankfully, their modified new recipe works. On Elevator, their second full-length album, the Vancouver-bred quartet wisely chose to focus on the — gasp — simple pop song.
Elevator is a grand departure into sweeping choruses and unadorned melodies. If they mastered terse, start-stop guitar lines and breathy organ fills on Make Up, then Elevator conquers the playful, sing-songy landscape the last record overlooked. In today’s competitive landscape of retro-rock revivalists, this may be one of the smartest moves since “synth-pop” became the bandwagon’s household codename. Fortunately, their new lean, approachable sound sets them apart from the current wave of dance punk players flooding the industry.
The second time around, singer/keyboardist Steven Bays, bassist Dustin Hawthorne, drummer Paul Hawley and recently departed guitarist Dante Decaro mold a record filled with infectiously refined vocal hooks and jittery beats. Elevator doesn’t abandon the danceable grooves of Make Up, it just takes those grooves and makes them iridescent, with more acoustic guitar, more toy piano and more desperate yelping.
It’s safe to say that Bays carries the album, from the tongue-twisting opening chant on “Island of the Honest Man” to the daft and playful “You Owe Me an IOU.” His lyrics are flooded with even more nerdy self-pity. On “Middle of Nowhere,” one of the decidedly un-Hot Hot Heat tunes, Bays stretches his peculiar cackle of a voice into a touching, empathy soaked cry: “I’m just consistently inconsistent.” The overtly political “Soldier in a Box” plants a bold assertion about a lonely soldier who “celebrated himself / ‘Cause nobody cares.”
If the album sags toward the end, blame the string of bland, forgettable tunes. The title track showcases Bays’s impressively odd range but suffers from lethargic and boring instrumentation. Usually the filler songs, like “Shame on You,” are spread throughout a solid album, but they seem to be stapled to the end of Elevator. If the album were cut a tad shorter, it could stand as a stellar example of Heat’s explosive dance-punk.
The shot-in-the-foot departure of Decaro challenged the band to find a replacement that could translate the bounciness of Elevator to the stage as Hot Hot Heat begins touring. Luke Paquin enticed them enough to fill the spot permanently. He’s got his work cut out for him, though — especially considering that Elevator is weighted with note-for-note guitar burps that follow Bays’s vocals. This, coupled with the band’s pilgrimage to major-label land may raise concern over Hot Hot Heat’s integrity. Yet Elevator, despite a lengthy delay, packs enough pop punch and XTC guitars to satisfy even the most skeptical members of the peanut gallery.
Hot Hot Heat may be tagged with the responsibility of repopularizing the dance-punk genre, but it’s clear that Elevator also borrows from the song-structure of artists like Elvis Costello. What’s more, Hot Hot Heat take these less applicable influences and fuse them into a catchy-ass pop song. And in a musical environment wrought with talentless postmodern copycat clones, Hot Hot Heat refuse to become lumped in with the dregs of the scene. Elevator is one happy chorus ahead of the dance-hall pack — and this is the best direction it could’ve taken.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars