2007 / Music

Review: Hives Enlist Top-Tier Producers To Guide Comeback Disc

Swedish Garage-Rockers Attempt To Restart Sputtering Career

Before a note is even heard, one can see the desperation that permeates the Hives’ new album.

Photo: No Fun/A&M Records/Octone Records

Photo: No Fun/A&M Records/Octone Records

A casual scanning through the disc’s liner notes reveals some heavy-duty production help for this group once hailed as the Swedish saviors of rock ‘n’ roll. If the new disc, “The Black And White Album,” isn’t quite a hail mary, it’s certainly a collection that — both in intention and style — makes clear the band’s commitment to break through again as well as the extent to which they will go to get there. Unfortunately, their music won’t do the heavy lifting for them.

This record marks a pivotal moment in the group’s future. It posits: Will the Hives remain forever enshrined as a one-hit wonder from the winter of 2001/2002? (One wonders what Michael Ian Black will have to say about them in a future installment of “I Love The ’00s.”) Or will this record be the stepping stone toward a longer career like the ones achieved by their British Invasion musical forefathers.

The stakes weren’t always so high for this quintet from Fagersta, Sweden. Literally coming out of nowhere, the band’s most popular record, “Veni Vidi Vicious,” positioned the Hives as one of the leaders of a miniature rock revival that, at least for a few months, threatened to conclude the Britney Spears era. But it didn’t quite work out like that though.

With hot single “Hate To Say I Told You So” still riding high on the charts, I saw the band in the midst of their triumphant U.S. tour in a Minneapolis club. The group was tight, appropriately raucous, but also very well rehearsed — whether it was their Stooges-esque guitar riffs, synchronized stage posturing or singer Pelle Almqvist’s faux-obnoxious, Mick Jagger mannerisms. With a bespectacled Josh Hartnett and several grizzly, middle-aged Kinks fans looking on, the Hives demonstrated on that night that these upstarts had at least one set of great “Nuggets”-style rock in them. The years to come would be more challenging.

While stylistic compatriots, like the Strokes or the White Stripes, shied away a bit from the media-driven, garage-rock hoopla, the Hives amiably lapped it up and proved perhaps a bit too accommodating for anything MTV or others wanted. The attention that the band generated seemed at times to exceed the saturation point and bordered on overexposure. When the group’s anticipated followup, 2004’s “Tyrannosaurus Hives,” was released, it seemed a bit too soon and too similar to “Veni Vidi Vicious” to wipe away the bad memories. The record was justly viewed as a critical and commercial non-starter and the group’s career was stalled in the garage.

With millions of record company dollars already sunk into the band, it wasn’t time to give up just yet. Regrouping, the Hives sought out some top-tier producers to guide their comeback effort. “The Black And White Album” surely benefits from the extra help, and the divergent viewpoints at the mixing board are reflected in the stylistic experimentation on some of the tracks. And the record is an unequivocal improvement if not a creative renaissance. But the record’s weaknesses — its repetitive songwriting formula and cheap shtick-iness — are only amplified by the appearance of outside help. Employing A-list svengalis also doesn’t speak to the band members’ level of confidence in their own abilities nor indie cred. It is perhaps with some unintended irony that the band members sing lines like “like a puppet on a string, you hold on tight,” on one of the new tunes.

The producers the Hives sought out lay out their game plan for this album: Make their music appear “authentic” but definitely commercially appealing. Dennis Herring, who produced seven tracks, has a proven track record for achieving such results with Elvis Costello, Modest Mouse and Counting Crows. The inclusion of Garrett “Jacknife” Lee was quite the coup as he’s probably rock’s hottest commodity after helming recent releases by U2, Green Day, Snow Patrol and Bloc Party. Most curious is the appearance of pop mastermind Pharrell Williams of the Nepturnes, who directs the album’s two most blatant dalliances with the pop marketplace. (Hip-hop auteur Timbaland recorded sessions with the group as well and while the band did make an appearance on his solo disc, no songs from their collaboration made “The Black And White Album.”)

The Hives’ conversion over to their producers’ musical attitude is at times so complete that we lose sight of the group’s musical well-defined perspective completely. “T.H.E.H.I.V.E.S.” is the kind of pure, post-modern disco funk that Pharrell has peddled to other musical A-listers since the late ’90s. The band’s vociferous guitars are transformed into Bee Gees-style, percussive, choppy riffs and the band’s underutilized rhythm section is brought to the fore to propel the beat. This switch dynamic extends into the singing as well. Almqvist isn’t shouting, but crooning in a style that finally matches the formality of his black and white suits. It’s so akin to Pharrell’s previous work that one expects the late Ol’ Dirty Bastard to chime in on the chorus. (Pharrell’s aesthetic fingerprints aren’t as obvious on his other track, “Well All Right!” which has a strange vaudevillian air to it. It’s sing-along chorus is a solid hook, but Almqvist’s raspy shrieking gets grating quickly.)

Timbaland might be absent here, but his influence is unmistakable on the self-produced “Giddy Up!” So earnest is the band’s attempt to recreate Tim’s methodology that this track could have been tucked away on Justin Timberlake’s last album. Although the song doesn’t have the percussive thudding that is a constant in Tim’s studio concoctions, his creative spirit is obvious in Almqvist’s hip-hop-influenced, syncopated vocal delivery and the avant sound effects that fill out the melody. Again, the Hive’s trademark ferocious guitarwork has been effectively neutered and the musicians craft something off a drum machine, cascading keyboard squiggles and a four-note guitar/bass rhythm.

Even “Puppet On A String” comes across like another episode in this temporary identity crisis. The melody is too limited — based only on handclaps, piano and the band members’ voices — that its just musically uninteresting. It’s as if the band members forgot who they were for three painful minutes and could manage only a bad imitation of the White Stripes’ cabaret ditties.

While the album’s musical experiments provoke the same response as rubberneckers on the highway, most of the record is dedicated to the Hives’ bread and butter. Herring and Lee concentrate their energies on making the most of these tracks and assumingly downplay the fact that each carries the markings of coming out of the same cookie-cutter mold.

The best of the bunch, “Tick Tick Boom,” “Bigger Hole To Fill” and “You Got It All … Wrong,” have hooks good enough to overcome their similarities to their musical antecedents or offer new musical twists on the old familiar. In the case of “Bigger Hole To Fill,” Almqvist sings in a baritone that is less abrasive than his normal singing voice, which isn’t that dissimilar from the shrieking monkey description some old codger applied to Jagger in the ’60s. “Tick Tick Boom” is a complete rewrite of “Hate To Say I Told You So,” but with a slightly more massaged pre-chorus. The rhythm might be slightly different, but one can’t mistake the structure and melodic commonalities. The tracks are mirror images of each other.

These songs can be pleasing in a momentary and visceral sense, but by the end of the disc, it’s clear these aren’t the type of cuts that the band had hoped for. It’s all much too much a retread of the past. Why not listen to “Vendi” instead? Again, the Hives’ lyrics prove to be rich with irony.

“They say the definition of madness is doing the same thing and expecting a different result,” Almqvist sqwaks. You said it, Pelle.

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Note: David’s nationally syndicated music column, Soundbytes, appeared in the Entertainment section of all Internet Broadcasting websites. This column was originally published there.

©Copyright 2007 by David Hyland. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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