Thursday, December 8, 2016

One Last Pick Through the Bins, Volume 8: The Hives

How far to back into that one?

The first song I ever heard by The Hives was “Hate to Say I Told You So.” A boyfriend of an in-law used that and a song by The Czars that I can’t remember to pad out the rest of a CD with The Strokes first album on it. So, yeah, good day for me. Great song, too, one that worked exactly the same way any great single should (i.e., “you like that kid? There’s more where that came from.”)

I didn’t listen to that parenthetical voice. When the next chance to pick up something by The Hives came ‘round – and this was years later, a half decade at least - fate threw two albums at me: Barely Legal and Tyrannosaurus Hives. Barely Legal, as it turns out, is the band’s debut album. It also turns out it’s not easy to come by, even by today’s (or Spotify’s) standards. I want to pause here to acknowledge something people can’t appreciate in these days of “(almost) every song at your fingertips.” There was a time when some kind of essentially accidental logic sent that Swedish album to a random record store in the American town you actually have to live in. Add to that the necessity of some random person going on a bizarre music-porn quest to seek out this semi-mythical, yet documented (in fanzines) colored 45 of a European import. This was treasure hunting, people. I only did it in Seattle and in the early 90s, and very, very passively. Also, that was a time when people just threw all that shit at you. You only had to decide whether you wanted to eat the extra cost. Still have a few colored vinyl 45s. Just sayin’…

At any rate, Barely Legal came from a European label, and featured an essentially anonymous band (e.g. The Hives; no one knew who they were…maybe just outside of Sweden). Even as I barely remember how I came across it (old gypsy woman?), it’s a good debut, one filled with a healthy dose of straight punk numbers – e.g., “Well, Well, Well,” “King of Asskissing,” and “What’s that Spell…Go to Hell!” – but a couple prototypes for future songs came in, too – e.g., “Here We Go Again” and “BlackJack.”

Tyrannosaurus Hives built from the prototypes. (It felt better to use “builds” in the prior sentence because good music feels current when I hear it, but that’s why I kept The Hives’ discography close while I looked into this stuff; Barely Legal came out in 1997; their most current is 2012, for reference). It came in the middle of their run and years ago – things change, people change, hairstyles change - but it’s still the cleanest embrace of what feels like the band’s best self. Searing pace, nervously manic guitar riffs, all topped by a bellowing sociopath who knows how to use a good scream: these are a few of my favorite things, and The Hives gave them to me on Tyrannosaurus Hives. When I think of The Hives, even with the oddballs on Barely Legal, Tyrannosaurus Hives is their sound.

Those are different albums, even as it doesn’t tax the brain too much to connect them to the same band. One thing that might have helped those connections come together is the fact that I kept running into the same songs on different albums. As it happens (jesus, need to get a new phrase for this transition), The Hives released a compilation album in the States called Your Favourite New Band, which included songs from both Barely Legal and Veni Vidi Vicious. I’ve listened to this band for the past three days, and still have no clear idea of what song goes on which album. Regardless, a lot the hits cross between these two (or three) albums: "Main Offender" and "Hate to Say I Told You So," (linked to above) among them. Still, I don’t think about it much…

…only now I do. Somewhere in looking up either the list of their actual albums, or the band’s chronology, I hit a Wikipedia page (can't recall which) with a little box for “genres” posted in the top right corner. For The Hives, they came up with, Garage Rock, Post-Punk Revival, Garage Punk. The last one feels right, but only if I pin them to what I called “their sound” up above. I see it now…judging me…

In creative terms, evolve or die means a lot to me. While most bands find something that makes them distinct – e.g., a “sound,” a “style” or, god forbid, a gimmick – and make that an identity, those same traits can work the same as the band nailing its feet to the floor. By way of good news, The Hives (who, apparently, tour heavily and put out albums on slow cycles) didn't stagnate a ton; they put out two more albums, The Black and White Album and Lex Hives, each with enough of the same to stick within the boundaries of the brand, but neither sounding like a second bite of that big, beautiful apple positively dripping cash all over everything…well, that came out…(also, small group, never really hit the big time, big fish, small pond, etc.) By that I mean, they didn’t just keep pumping the same old well till it died, and credit to them.

Things went a little further on The Black and White Album, at least commercially (in my mind). Sure, they had a couple “Hives-y” songs, “Tick Tick Boom” and “You Got It All…Wrong,” (but that chimey sound after the will recur; and do they owe royalties to AC/DC for “Here I Come Square One”), but songs like “Won’t Be Long” (see?) and “Giddy Up!definitely point toward a new…mode of…expression (almost Devo-esque). And nothing sums up “T.H.E.H.I.V.E.S.” so well as leaning too heavily into your own gimmick (can't find a link for that last one; sorry!).

Lex Hives returns to the roots, but without wanting to grow the same species of tree. My first thought here is, taking the “garage” out of garage rock. I’ve neither read, nor heard a good definition for “garage rock” but, for now, I’m going “rockabilly with meth and reverb.” Lex Hives backs out of the almost physical intensity of Tyrannosaurus Hives and replaces it with bar- band respectability. Assuming such a thing exists. That’s not to say you don’t want to experience a sonic assault in a small room – I mean, the best shows of my life look like that – but there’s a time when you think harder about why you’re doing it. What I mean is, it’s a sound for a smaller room, a good evolution, actually, for a band that’s been around since ’97. So, keep going, guys, and don’t look back. Maybe you have something left to say.

Personally, though, I can’t escape the gravity of Tyrannosaurus Hives. Since technology fucked my attention span, there simply aren’t a lot of albums that I sit through without skipping once, but this is one of ‘em. I don’t know where to start, really, even as the pleasure each song offers doesn’t feel so different. I mean, what really separates “No Pun Intended” from “Missing Link” from “See Through Head”? Nothing bad, certainly; all those songs fucking shiver with energy. The same thing goes for the rest of the album, maybe even The Hives’ entire discography. If there’s a knock against The Hives, its emotional nullity. It’s all snide, superiority in weirdness; nothing wrong with that, but, lyric-wise, it’s pretty specific. It’s not that they never let their guard down (wait…why am I treating some “him” like a “they”?), “Love in Plaster” at least hints at the emotion (the scream in this one...magic), but even the tone of this one speaks to the same basic idea of a wronged man (e.g. an individuated “Hive”) lashing out as the wronged party.

I guess the question is whether or not The Hives are done. Lex Hives whispers no, but it’s not wholly reassuring. For one, they definitely shift away from the "garage" sound (I mean, where's this album's "B is for Brutus?" the garageiest of their garage numbers?). There are some solid songs on this album, but the “evolve or die” ethos comes into it. For instance, “1000 Answers” still clings to that sweet, raging, Swedish irony, but the themes get more abstract (and reflectively, therefore timeless?) in “Patrolling Days” (is that...Western justice?) Or even “Take Back the Toys.” Of which, maybe I just hear something in the verses that speak to a new kind of clarity, a sort of “no more mind games” mentality, a shift to a victim of events. The same goes for “Without the Money,” only deeper. I think the idea within them is both universal, and something that grows with age – i.e., the more you feel in control of the world, the less you know about it.

So, buried the lead in all of this, but The Hives are a sort of “echo band.” To connect back to that genre note way up the page, this is how they become “Post-Punk Revival.” They may not be revolutionary, but they put a pretty vivid stamp on their little sound/space in the rock universe. And, for what it’s worth, I think that’s harder than it sounds…

…even though it happens every six months or so. And I think that’s why they became noted: they took an old sound and made it their own. That’s enough sometimes, even if only for a short, little run. Which is better than most of us get.

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