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April 15, 2005

Hot Hot Heat serve up Elevator music rather than remake the Breakdown

When my ex-roommate first heard the Hot Hot Heat song "Bandages" on the radio, he thought the line was actually "Ban the Jews." "I thought that was kind of weird," he said.

On the strength of that single and the song "Goddamnit" (which should have been a single), Hot Hot Heat's Make Up the Breakdown was one of the best CDs of the current garage-rock revival…'80s glam-rock revival…whatever you want to call it. Along with bands like the Killers, Franz Ferdinand, and the similarly-named Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Hot Hot Heat couldn't have been any hotter.

So does their follow-up release, Elevator—on which the band trades their former label, scrappy underdog Sub Pop, for the more glamorous Sire—live up to the hype, or is it another Room on Fire? (Sorry, Strokes.) The answer is an emphatic "maybe."

Elevator is one of the rare discs I was able to get into right away; the hooks are that undeniable. The first track, "Running Out of Time," opens with a catchy chorus, albeit one that seems to be poking fun at some of Hot Hot Heat's target audience. ("Drop-dead gorgeous, art history drop-out/ Thought her father ought to pay for her to clear the whole shop out/ She carries her cameras in hand to complete the look," goes one inexplicably bitter stanza. Um, OK, Hot Hot Heat. If you don't want slackers listening to your music, good luck with those record sales.)

The album blazes on with highlights like "You Owe Me an I.O.U." (which, despite its dopey, repetitive lyrics, will have you singing along instantly) and "Jingle Jangle," a song that starts out slow but ends up just as fast-paced as the rest.

Come to think of it, that's what's missing from this disc: the ballad that proves Hot Hot Heat can go a little deeper—that they're capable of something more than having a good time. Think the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' "Maps" (which, tellingly, was also their breakout hit). The final and title track "Elevator" almost fits the bill, but not quite. Oh, and by the way, although that song is listed first on the back of the CD, it actually plays last. The set list goes down like the floors of an elevator, you see, from 15 to 1. Number 13 is also skipped, just like in a superstitious hotel.

The first singles appear to be "Goodnight, Goodnight" and "Middle of Nowhere," since those are the songs advertised on the front of the CD. It's a canny move: the former is the straight-ahead dance track, while the latter is something a little more carefully orchestrated for the critics. Both are solid songs, and they definitely show growth from the two-minute ditties that composed the majority of Make Up the Breakdown. Our boys have a little fun with word play this time around, with clever, if not Proustian, lyrics like "Well maybe I'm a little bit slow/ Or just consistently inconsistent" and the mathematically baffling "Now it's the 48th hour of a two-day night."

I've never been a fan of Beck's non sequitur lyrics, but I hated the "na-na-na" choruses on Guero. It's refreshing to realize there's still one band out there that realizes they have to write actual words. Only Hot Hot Heat's "Ladies and Gentlemen" violates this dictum, and then only briefly.

Still, it's tempting to dismiss Hot Hot Heat as a band without any longevity, riding the wave of the new, hip sound until the Next Big Thing comes along. One of their tracks even seems to address this, proving that Hot Hot Heat think they'll last longer than, say, the Killers. "I'll join 'em talking 'bout the people everybody talks about," lead singer Steve Bays resigns himself on "Pickin' It Up." He's oblivious to the fact that Hot Hot Heat is one of those MTV buzz-worthy bands.

Even with a superfluous "Introduction"—running all of 17 seconds—Elevator clocks in at a brief 38 minutes. Not all of their attempts at growth are successful, either. Whenever more voices join Bays' in the background, it simply sounds awkward—although adding more singers is usually a surefire way to provide at least an illusion of a layered sound.

Do you like no-frills rock music? Do lines like "She was in the habit of reapplying make-up/ Eaten up by crocodile tears" strike you as astute social commentary? (Yeah, me neither.) Perhaps most importantly, did you like Make Up the Breakdown—or even Scenes One from Thirteen, Hot Hot Heat's first album, which cobbled together songs from their early EPs? Then you'll probably enjoy this one. Just be aware that with sonic maturity comes a more homogenized sound and a more fervent angling for the mainstream. They didn't transfer to Sire for nothin'. And while there are no apparent successors to Most Hilariously Misunderstood Lyric since "Ban the Jews," once I burn this CD for my former roommate, perhaps he will surprise me once again.