by Jon Hunt
The Darkness, Hot Cakes (Wind-Up)
The difference between me and (seemingly) the rest of the free world is that I take the Darkness seriously. Frank Zappa once asked the question: “Does humor belong in rock music?” I’m a firm believer that it damn well does, as long as its done well. Queen’s combo of blistering riffs, phenomenal songwriting and a touch of tongue-in-cheekery, for example, strikes the perfect balance between rawk and humor. Something like a Dead Milkmen (sorry, fan!) doesn’t – besides the initial “har-de-dar,” it doesn’t hold up at all as an album listen (nobody’s playing “Punk Rock Girl” in their convertible and pumping their fists along with it, you know? Well, maybe they are, but I don’t wanna be in that car).
The Darkness found that perfect balance, I believe, on their underrated (by everybody, including the band) and fantastic second record, One Way Ticket To Hell And Back. Take a listen to “Hazel Eyes” off that one – sure, it contains goofy lines like “I’ve never seen a set of eyes more hazel-er-er,” and singer Justin Hawkins’ expected falsetto wail, but it’s also a phenomenally gorgeous, epic song with one of the best choruses I’ve ever heard. The bits that don’t take themselves seriously don’t detract from the bits that do, dig? It’s just a flat-out great song.
And that’s why I don’t dismiss them as a winky-winky novelty like most of my peers – because Hawkins, despite all the hootin’ and hollerin’ and dressing up funny and jumping around the stage like Diamond Dave on steroids and exhortations that “every man, woman and child wants to SUCK MY COCK,” is a damn great songwriter, who wields stiletto-sharp hooks like a demented rock-and-roll musketeer. And if you listen to them for that, and not just as a novelty group, I think they hold up marvelously.
That said, Hot Cakes, their first album in eight-ish years (the band split up, Hawkins put out a record as Hot Leg, etc.) is pretty damn great. Not as great, I think, as their first two albums (the second record beats it for songwriting, and the first for pure rock-and-roll energy) but still really, really damn great nonetheless. The highs, and there are plenty, hit stratospherically high. “Nothin’s Gonna Stop Us” is as good a single as the band’s ever put out, a careening, rollicking tune bolstered by a brilliant chorus and a blistering solo. And “Keep Me Hangin’ On” almost reaches the heights of “Hazel Eyes” – a galloping lope of a song with a brilliantly catchy melody.
I actually dig the ballads, too, even though everybody knows ballads supposedly suck (they don’t – Christ, who doesn’t love “Beth?”). The Darkness have never been afraid to get a little bit cheesy, and I sure don’t mind a well-constructed power ballad, me. “Living Each Day Blind” benefits the most from the album’s Bob Ezrin (Kiss Destroyer, Lou Reed Berlin) mix, bolstering the damn-near-perfect melody with a gigantic production featuring massed choirs of Hawkinses and guitar-monies that’ll break your heart. And “Forbidden Love” is unexpectedly tender and confessional – “My in-laws treat me like an outlaw,” he sings, over a weirdly mellow acoustic backing.
And of course everybody’s talking about the band’s punky, verboten cover of Radiohead’s “Street Spirit (Fade Out).” It’s at once funny and totally blistering, and totally reveals the song’s hidden metal heart lurking behind all the po-faced seriousness. With only the slightest tweak it sounds like the long lost Maiden song that never was, all minor chord arpeggiation and high-pitched wailing.
If the album has a flaw, it’s that a few of the tunes in the album’s later half sound a little limp, like the energy fell out of the damn thing before it was over. “She’s Just A Girl, Eddie” is where it starts – a just-kind-of-there song that’s nice enough but doesn’t have the punch of the tunes that came before it. I’m not overfond of “Concrete,” either – nothing to recommend it beyond an interesting, droney guitar solo (and, y’know, it’s not cool if the solo is the best thing about it).
And yeah, the album is funny. You’re gonna laugh at the lyrics in “Every Inch Of You” (apparently Hawkins wanted to be a vet before he discovered rock and roll – who knew?) and the cynical, anti-love sentiments of “Love Is Not The Answer,” as well as a few of the more histrionic massed-harmony-squeals. But the humor never overshadows the great songwriting, and that’s what makes Hot Cakes more than just a novelty – it’s a great album (though not a perfect one) that’ll stand up to multiple listens. And trust me, if you love damn fun hard rock records as much as I do (and you should), you’re gonna dig it.
Baroness, Yellow and Green (Relapse)
There’s a natural course of evolution that should happen to metal bands if they wanna do something more important than, you know, just bludgeon you the same damn exact way album after album (and believe me, there’s plenty of metal bands that do just that), and it involves “expanding their sound” with “other types of music” and “occasionally writing quiet songs” and also “songs in a major key.” Take a look at a band like Led Zeppelin, for example. Your metal fans probably would argue that they aren’t even metal, man but I’d argue who fucking cares, they evolved and expanded and did cool damn stuff and became the hugest band in the god-damn universe, and your stupid genre restrictions don’t even matter anymore because Physical Graffiti, THEE END, buddy.
Problem: metal fans (some metal fans – not all metal fans, but the purists) fucking hate that. All of that. They don’t want evolution. They don’t want change, or expansion, or sonic experimentation (or hooks – oh, god forbid hooks). They want that head trauma, album after album, time after time. And when bands start to suck (read: start to write stuff that doesn’t always sound metal all the god-damn time) they drop off like flies. It most notably happened with Opeth – the singer stopped singing like Cookie Monster and the band started writing prog operas and holy sweet damn, did their fans revolt. The problem: that was the exact moment that I, as a critic, started to care. Because, and you’ll forgive me for being narrow-minded, I fucking hate Cookie Monster rock, but I love bands that write prog operas. So you see the dilemma. As a critic, I’m drawn to the exact stuff that purist metal fans hate.
So when I say I love Baroness’ Yellow and Green, you can just about figure why, and adjust expectations accordingly. Having now listened to the band’s entire catalog, I can say that up until this record, they were a super-heavy, super-serious, very head-pummeling metal band (a quite good one – but even then, you could see where they were headed). And that with this record, they have evolved their sound and are writing the aforementioned quiet/major key stuff in amongst the heavy shit. And of course this is the record where I prick up my ears and listen, and where your metal guys might turn off in disgust or at least boredom. But since I’m not a purist, I’ll make the call: Yellow and Green is one of the best metal records of the last five years, if you don’t mind the fact that they’re not gonna pound your ass every single damn song. It’s a brilliant work that’s all over the map, and even if you’re not a metal guy (or girl — this ain’t just boyrock, either, yo), you’re gonna love it.
Interestingly, while listening, I thought to myself: this is what Fleet Foxes would sound like as a metal band (and honestly, if you asked me what bugged me about Fleet Foxes, I’d say “man, I wish they were a metal band” — but that’s just me). Listen to the three-part harmonies on the oddly-gorgeous “Twinkler” if you don’t believe me — if you didn’t know the rest of the record was metal, you’d think “oh, here’s a beard band I need to get into.” Or listen to the gorgeous major-key melody at the heart of “Board Up The House” under the layer of heavy-ass bass and crunchy guitar — it’s pretty. And a little cheerful. And kind of wistful and sad in the way that Fleet Foxes are. But in a metal way, you know? Which is cool! And really unexpected and interesting. Or the acoustic “coloring” on the really-quite-lovely “Mtns. (The Crown & Anchor)” – it’s the same kind of stuff as the Foxes do, just, you know, more ominous and heavy.
What makes the album so good is that it’s all over the damn place, careening between metal and creepy horror-soundtrack stuff and British folk stuff and fast stuff and slow stuff and everything in between. “Take My Bones Away,” for example, is a nice, grindy, downtuned stoner-metal song, but it’s followed by the subtle, understated potential energy of “March To The Sea” and the jangly, windy tangle of “Little Things.” “Cocainium” has almost a dance beat behind the mysterious, pagan melody it sports, and “Eula” is damn near a ballad, though a spooky one, starting with some sensitive acoustic strumming and hushed twinkling before breaking into the rather pretty heaviness therein.
You see what I mean, right? And why I find it exciting? This is the sound of an album with a rich sonic palette, expanding beyond their limited worldview and creating a work that’s rich, multilayered, shifting and changing. My favorite bit of the album is actually what I think is probably the last of the four sides (it’s a double – of course – but I’m listening on CD, which seems counterproductive – vinyl is a must), which is actually the least heavy part of the entire album but where the band’s songwriting really comes together. It starts with the pretty, sad, mellotron drenched “Foolsong,” heads into the delicate folk of “Collapse,” the understated indie-isms of “Psalms Alive” and the so-quiet-it’s-almost-not-there “Stretchmarker,” before bludgeoning you to damn near death with “The Line Between.” And then the album ends with the pretty, spooky arpeggiation of “If I Forget Thee, Low Country.” Fantastic stuff, not the least bit metal, and I can see why purists would balk, but hoo boy.
One downside: it takes a little bit to get used to the singer. Look. There are times when he sounds like the shit you hated in the 90s. I’m talking about the moment when grunge rock turned over into bullshit. He’s a little strident and low-singing and it might make you suspicious at first but stick with it. That’s just how he sounds. He can’t even help it. You won’t mind it so much once you realize he’s willing to use that voice in awesome harmonies and with some really great, totally likeable melodies. You’ll wonder, by the end, what you were even worried about, really. ‘Cause honestly, your Alice In Chains, they were good singers – that wasn’t where the problem lay, was it?
I guess if you’re looking to have your head crushed, look elsewhere. This is not that album, but honestly, who gives a shit. This is a band who has (at least for now) evolved beyond the need to just rock your face off all the damn time into a land where Other Types Of Music Exist and Stuff Can Be Quiet And Pretty Sometimes. I see that as a good thing: Yellow and Green is, I guess, a non-metal-fans metal album, just like I guess Zeppelin were back in the day, and one of the best ones I’ve heard in ages. It’s a rewarding listen, and you’ll find something new to dig each time around (on this listen, for example, I just found the absolutely transcendently elated “Green Theme” – damnation!). But believe me – it still rocks, and plenty.