Review: The Hives’ “The Black and White Album”

Nov 15, 2007 3:25pm

Five years ago when the Hives first gained popularity in the United States on the strength of their album “Veni Vidi Vicious,” (which was originally released back in 2000) they were considered one of the three major bands, along with the White Stripes and the Strokes, bringing forth the modern garage rock revival.  Their “Hate To Say I Told You So” and “Main Offender” were among the singles that set the standards for the movement.   Of those bands, the Strokes may have been the coolest, the White Stripes may have been the most old-fashioned and bluesy, but the Hives were always the most stylish and the most fun.

They were a band of five dapper, cartoonish rogues from Sweden, dressed in snappy suits and ready to party with their brand of shout-along punk.  Armed with humorous stage names like Dr. Matt Destruction and Nicholaus Arson, they were as much about their music as they were about their wacky image.   The band’s leader was a charismatic, lovable loudmouth by the name of Howlin’ Pete Almqvist.

The back story was that they were a bunch of teens in Sweden, brought together boy-band style by a reclusive music guru by the name of Randy Fitzsimmons.  No one is really sure with the exception of the band themselves and their inner circle, but odds are that Fitzsimmons could be about as real as Jack and Meg White’s shared genes, despite his songwriting credits on all of their songs.

After “Veni Vidi Vicious” caused a stir, its follow-up, 2004′s “Tyrannosaurus Hives,” stalled.  Had that album’s closer “Antidote” been the album’s lead single and not “Walk Idiot Walk” we might not be having this conversation, and the Hives might not be finding themselves three years later trying to prove something.

The band’s first three albums were each roughly a half hour or under, so at forty-five minutes, “The Black And White Album” is downright epic by Hives standards.  It ends up giving them room to stretch, and stretch they do to great effect.

The majority of the album was recorded in Oxford, Miss., with producer Dennis Herring, who is known for his work with Modest Mouse and Elvis Costello.   The Modest Mouse connection makes sense, because both bands have a lot of indie cred and are led by wonderfully unique madcap singers.  The Costello connection is truly interesting especially considering that Herring produced his rather rootsy 2004 album, “The Delivery Man,” and not his earlier, jumpier new-wave hits, which are closer kin to the Hives’ main sound.  This is a clue as to what’s to come.  Nothing is as obvious as it once was.  On this record, the band members really test out their limits like never before while at the same time remaining true to their core formula.  In other words, for them, this is a much more mature record in the very best sense.

“Return the Favour” and “You’ve Got It All…Wrong” are both appealing and infectious, but they have a new sunniness that the band’s previous work didn’t have.  They are on the verge of power-pop.  Both tracks would make excellent singles.

Almqvist plays around with his vocal range a lot more than before.  No longer is he just the fun-loving screamer of earlier records.  On both “Won’t Be Long,” and “Bigger Hole To Fill,” he begins singing in a lower, more even tone, recalling simultaneously both Joey Ramone and Iggy Pop.

Longtime Hives fan Pharrell Williams of the Neptunes and N.E.R.D. fame stretches out his rock muscle by producing two tracks: the brooding, almost swing-dance friendly “Well, All Right!” and the sleek pseudo-disco work-up “T.H.E.H.IV.E.S.”  The latter is reminiscent of that period in the late ’70s when CBGB’s crowd decided to streamline their sound in order to get radio play.  The track is particularly like Blondie’s “Heart of Glass.”  It finds Almqvist trading his signature yelp for a soft falsetto during the verses, and a menacing, low-voiced grumble during the chorus.

With its synthetic beat, spoken lyrics and cool use of echo effects and laser-beam noises, “Giddy Up!” is almost electro-clash. It’s actually a pretty radical track for a band that was previously such a straight-forward punk band.

There is a slow, menacing energy to the piano-driven “Puppet on a String.” It almost sounds like some sort sinister cabaret number.

“You Dress Up For Armageddon” begins sounding equally bleak, but has a major shift in the chorus adding a whole new dimension and scope.

Then there is the playful, almost scientific instrumental “A Stroll Through Hive Manor Corridors.”  It’s almost like a film score piece, proving how much growth potential the Hives really have.

Fans of “Veni Vidi Vicious” shouldn’t stress out that the band has changed too much though.  There’s plenty for them to love, too, including the record’s opener and first single, “Tick Tick Boom.”  The best track on the record, however, is “Square One Here I Come,” a tightly wound, angst-driven nugget, about being unemployed and hopeless.  Almqvist sings, “Don’t have no money cuz I don’t have a job. / Don’t have a job cuz I ain’t got no skills. / Ain’t got no skills cuz I was not trained. / I was not trained because I didn’t go to school.”  The lyrical build combined with the delivery make this easily this record’s “Hate To Say I Told You So.”  It’s a rollicking, irresistible shout-along!

“The Black and White Album” is a dynamic example of a great band regaining its footing after a stumble.  It gets better and better with every listen and should be mined for as many singles as possible.  If it doesn’t build the Hives’ fanbase, only the record company marketing teams can be to blame.

Long live the Hives!!!  Long live rock ‘n’ roll!!!  This is what it’s all about.

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