A friend of mine once told me that her mother didn’t believe that music should be serious. For example, pre-Hagar Van Halen is perfectly acceptable, as Diamond Dave’s presence alone made the band more about spectacle, showmanship and gettin’ some than any attempt to tap into a profound universal feeling, a la “Right Now.” Or, take The B-52’s, whose sole purpose was to get people to dance. Ain’t nothing wrong with that. Now, while I don’t completely agree that rock music shouldn’t be serious, I can certainly sympathize with the argument, and it’s a rule that certain specific bands would do well to follow. Case in point: Hot Hot Heat.
The young Canadian band’s debut Makeup The Breakdown was something of a fun and carefree new wave record, scratching and buzzing, but all in the interest of a good hook. Steve Bays may have confessed to having bandages on his arms and his legs, but one could have concluded that it was merely a casualty of frantic dancing. After all, a record that hyperactive and giddy is bound to make a few knees and elbows knock together. With album two, Elevator, the group veered toward a stronger melodic center, pushing aside the dance singles for pop gems like “Middle of Nowhere.” Admittedly, it still wasn’t bad. But with album three, Happiness LTD, the group only occasionally sounds like their former selves, while most of the record is a concerted effort to play heroic and emotional, therefore serious, rock music.
Some gorgeous, shimmering guitars open the title track, while synthesizers and pianos lend the song an even more prominent sense of grandeur. It all sounds very pretty and impressive, but Steve Bays’ vocals still sound more suited to the group’s days of white belts and skinny ties. He makes up for it during the soaring chorus, though second track “Let Me In” is even more troubling. Consisting of bells, strings, and another gigantic chorus, it’s custom made for regular radio rotation, but its overly emotive nature just pushes it that much closer to Fall Out Boy. A rerecorded track from earlier in their career, “5 Times Out of 100” is a return to what Hot Hot Heat does best—abrasive, yet super-catchy post-punk with a touch of Oingo Boingo.
“Harmonicas and Tambourines” is a ska-flavored pop tune that more successfully hones the group’s manic energy, though once again they succumb to radio balladry with “Outta Heart.” Don’t get me wrong—I like a good chorus, and there’s certainly plenty of that here, but that seems to be where most of the energy has been focused, leaving little in the way of memorable verse and bridge fodder. The back and forth continues as “My Best Fiend” finds the band launching into Fever-style cabaret dancepunk, but with “Give Up?”, they’re firmly entrenched in Killers territory.
While there are certainly great moments on Happiness LTD, they have been shuffled in with stronger efforts toward accessibility, a move that comes at the expense of the band’s uniqueness. Hot Hot Heat hasn’t abandoned their scrappy new wave approach altogether, but in attempting to balance overt stadium anthems with wiry post-punk breakdowns, they leave a thoroughly uneven and confusing effort. There’s certainly nothing wrong with a band following elevated ambitions and getting more “serious,” even, but Hot Hot Heat has all but abandoned the qualities that made them such an exciting arrival in the first place.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.