Hot Hot Heat frontman Steve Bays says there’s no shame in making the sort of albums that hipsters love to hate. So it isn’t very surprising that the band’s third album, “Elevator,” is an unabashed effusion of power pop. “As much as we have a subversive side, we made this record for the little kids inside of us who love a good pop song,” Bays said in a recent interview with Alternative Press.
Sure, that means they’ve made an album that fans of The Killers are sure to like. But “Elevator” is a disappointing album, especially for listeners who were attracted by the shining moments (“Bandages,” “Oh, Goddamit”) on their last album, “Make Up the Breakdown.” With the exception of a few songs, “Elevators” glaringly lacks sharp songwriting, dynamic variation, or the energetic edge that made songs like “Bandages” so likeable. And though there are some pleasant melodies — including a handful of brilliantly happy-go-lucky songs that rescue the album — as soon as many of the hooks become recognizable they’re just as quickly forgotten. Even worse, almost everything the band is doing has been done by similar artists like fellow-Canadians the New Pornographers or the Futureheads, and it’s been done better.
Not that Hot Hot Heat’s signature sound is so terrible or flagrantly derivative. The new-wave indie-rock formula works — spiking guitar, danceable synthesizer, bouncy keyboard, topped off with the sugary but aggressive male vocals. And though the band has succeeded on “Breakdown” in packing high-energy, fun, and a bit of innovation into 10 short songs, “Elevator” feels dulled down. With 14 songs in 38 minutes, it often feels like just another fast-paced, low-intelligence indie-rock album that few will remember in a couple of years.
A majority of the tracks sorely lag: “Ladies and Gentlemen,” plagued by intermittent “la la las,” drones through its verses with lackluster drum beats and middling guitar riffs. The song picks up during the keyboard-infused chorus, but by then you may be too bored to care.
The worst songs on the album are like bad versions of the same Strokes hit. The slow-starting “Jingle Jangle,” with its distracted guitar picking, booming drums, and meandering piano, sounds like a fuzzy mess. The sleepy chord progression makes the song tedious and unaffected — but the biggest offense is the lack of palpable sincerity in Bay’s wailing. What’s left is only the hollowed throbbing of the bass.
The band’s two-dimensional lyrics don’t help either. Neither compelling nor smart, they can largely be ignored without much consequence. On “Shame On You,” a remorseful song with panicked guitar lines, Bay sings: “Running with scissors wasn’t smart/ I tripped and cut open your heart.” In “Dirty Mouth,” a belligerent song about relationship separation, the incessantly repeated chorus consists of, “Wash your dirty mouth/ your dirty mouth/ watch your little mouth.” If the gimmick is supposed to sound punk, it instead comes across as annoyingly over-simplistic.
It’s sad when bad choruses happen to good songs. On the ridiculously-titled “You Owe Me an IOU,” again relentless repetition of the title phrase painfully overshadows what is, at its core, a great song. During the verses of “IOU,” Hot Hot Heat is at their best: A honky-tonk electric piano that sounds like it could be pedal-steel guitar blends perfectly with the effervescent drum beat and the band’s characteristically simple but resonant bass line. It’s here that Hot Hot Heat’s brazen pop flair comes alive, and it’s this kind of on-point musicianship that salvages the disc from pop punk Hell.
And there are highlights. “Goodnight Goodnight” is a cheerful bid farewell to a stifling relationship. Hot Hot Heat’s melodic sensibilities comes across powerfully in the pounding of the keyboard chords and jovial springing guitar. The verse builds up until the breakout of the chorus, a completely manic and vigorous show of emotional vitality. “Running Out of Time” is another head-bobbing tune that wholly demonstrates Hot Hot Heat’s capability for creating songs full of sincere energy and melodic anthems. Likewise, the chorus of “Island of the Honest Man” is nearly impossible not to like.
Hot Hot Heat can do better than “Elevator,” an album of hit-and-miss, simple and sometimes tiresome sugar-coated punk. The album isn’t nearly as addictive and interesting as their better work, and it sure isn’t greatly varied. There are songs that are worth your time, and the disc is redeemed by sporadically catchiness. Unfortunately for Hot Hot Heat, that can’t be enough.