|Hot Hot Heat:
Happiness, LTD. Label: WEA/Warner
A friend and I saw Hot Hot Heat open for the White Stripes at L.A.’s Greek Theatre just after they burst onto the indie rock/dance-punk scene in 2002 with the terrific Make Up the Breakdown, Sub Pop’s second-highest selling release at the time. (It’s still in the label’s top ten.) We were already fans of the record, and the live show wasn’t a letdown; it was both energetic and entertaining. My friend predicted that in a few years, the band would be headlining its own show at the Greek, and I was quick to agree with him. So here we are, a few years later, and HHH is still headlining clubs and supporting other bands in bigger venues. What happened? Better yet, what didn’t happen?
After Make Up, the band made the move to a major (Warner’s Sire Records) and released Elevator, which was met with the (almost) inevitable backlash from fanboys everywhere. Even though the three-year wait squandered a lot of the, um, heat surrounding the band, the album was still a solid follow-up. There were a number of good songs, but it just didn’t have its own breakthrough hit, like Breakdown’s “Bandages.” Some critics didn’t appreciate the band’s attempt at expanding its sound.
Enter Happiness, LTD, which is supposedly the group’s return to the old days, but after several listens, I’m still skeptical. Breakdown was so good because it was a non-stop, hook-laden feast for the ears. Elevator diverged by upping the sophistication, and in the process, the album lost some of its predecessor’s raw oomph. Happiness starts off strong, with a title track that features a gorgeous descending melody in frontman Steve Bays’ unique vocals (which, by the way, he wisely keeps in check for most of the album). However, the song is surprisingly laid back for a HHH album opener. The disc’s second single, “Let Me In,” opens with strings (!) and flows into a grown-up version of Breakdown-style pop, complete with layered hooks and extended bridges. It’s followed by the frenetic “5 Times Out of 100” and “Harmonicas and Tambourines,” and within this four-song context, the Breakdown references are valid.
However, all this Happiness is interrupted by the lumbering “Outta Heart,” which is a fine song on its own, but Breakdown didn’t stop to take a breath until the final track (“In Cairo”), so it feels more like Elevator. In fact, there are three or four slow- to mid-tempo tracks on the album, which is a little out of character for the band. Overall, the back half of the disc is a bit spotty. The hooks aren’t quite as tight or quite as catchy, but first single “Give Up” is worth seeking out. It’s classic HHH dance-punk, but with a Polyphonic Spree-ish chorus sprinkled in for good measure.
Hot Hot Heat doesn’t seem to be capable of making bad music; the question seems to be whether it’ll be decent, good or great. Breakdown was superb, while Elevator was a mix. Happiness, LTD. is a solid album in its own right, but it simply isn’t going to get the band out of the clubs.
The Greek will just have to wait.