Hot Hot Heat began in Victoria, British Columbia as a guitarless quartet, combining elements of punk with danceable synth-pop. Scenes One Through Thirteen collects recordings with original vocalist Matthew Marnik, which predate the band’s signing to Sub Pop. Drummer Paul Hawley and bassist Dustin Hawthorne maintain a firm sense of structure underneath Steve Bays’ creepy keyboards, but the demo-level production and Marnik’s tuneless shouting drag down the whole affair. Even devoted fans are likely to find this disc a waste of time. (The split CD combines five early recordings — all of which appear on Scenes One Through Thirteen — with seven songs by the Red Light Sting, a similarly styled and equally tuneless Vancouver band. By the time of this disc’s release, RLS had broken up, and Hot Hot Heat had moved on to better things.)
Knock Knock Knock is a big leap forward, thanks to guitarist Dante DeCaro’s arrival, Marnik’s departure and Bays’ assumption of lead vocal duties; his throaty yelp does provide some continuity from the band’s recordings with Marnik. Unlike his predecessor on the mic, though, Bays can carry a tune, and the band responds to this improvement by providing him with much better melodies to carry. The five songs on Knock Knock Knock recall early XTC in their tunefulness and science-geek exuberance. Bays also shows more versatility and style as a keyboardist than he did on the earlier recordings. His moody piano break in “5 Times Out of 100” and his electric piano over Hawley’s rim-shot rhythm in “Have a Good Sleep” are particularly fine touches. The self-produced EP (with help from Death Cab for Cutie’s Chris Walla) has depth and clarity. The rhythm section plays with more swing (especially in the funky “Touch You Touch You” and the countryish “More for Show”), and DeCaro’s guitar adds a welcome dose of rock ‘n’ roll energy to the songs.
The quartet opens Make Up the Breakdown with “Naked in the City Again,” a nervous, angular number about a compulsive attention-seeker, and proceeds to raise the bar from one song to the next — in melody, songwriting, instrumental attack, energy, you name it. Hot Hot Heat explores its XTC fixations further here, including Bays’ tendency to cram syllables into every space, as he does on “Naked in the City Again,” “Bandages,” “Aveda” and “Oh, Goddamnit.” “Get in or Get Out” is an anthem of hometown pride (“Ugly or pretty / It’s still my city / Say what you will / But get in or get out”) delivered over a march rhythm and Bays’ jubilant organ-playing. The production (by the band with Jack Endino) has plenty of audio space to maneuver in, and the musicians make the most of it. Hawley and Hawthorne guide the band through some tight rhythmic turns, especially in “This Town,” which provides the opposite viewpoint from “Get in or Get Out,” expressing discomfort in an unfamiliar city (“Gonna walk right through this town again / With a crowd of strangers watching me / Picking every little thing apart / So tell me what they said / Because I get attitude from this town”). Rather than just playing riffs, DeCaro and Bays lock onto each other and the rhythm section, giving the songs plenty of momentum. The band offers a superficial yet enjoyable take on Gang of Four in “Talk to Me, Dance with Me” and builds “In Cairo” from a slow-moving, faux-exotic groove to an energetic finale, closing Make Up the Breakdown in style.
Producer Dave Sardy (Oasis, Walkmen, Dirty Pretty Things, Thrills, Dandy Warhols) gives Elevator a more compressed sound, but that just makes Hot Hot Heat’s melodies and hooks burst out of the mix more boldly. “Running Out of Time,” “You Owe Me an IOU,” the kiss-off number “Goodnight Goodnight” and the irresistible, organ-driven “Pickin’ It Up” all are first-rate rockers. “Shame on You” is a funky tune with a hint of tropical flavor in the chorus. The arrangements of “Jingle Jangle,” the poppy “Middle of Nowhere,” “Ladies and Gentlemen” and the title track give the band even more breathing room, and the musicians take the opportunity to show off their increasing musical sophistication (the rhythm changes on “Ladies and Gentlemen” are especially subtle). Elevator lacks the growing momentum of Make Up the Breakdown, but still has great songs and playing. (Triskaidekaphobes note: Track 13 is missing from the song listing on the cover. CD technology being what it is, the thirteenth track actually is a four-second feedback coda to the preceding song, “Soldier in a Box.”)
DeCaro left after the completion of Elevator to join the Montreal-based band Wolf Parade; he was replaced by guitarist Luke Paquin. The title Happiness Ltd. describes the disc pretty accurately: the enthusiasm and fun that characterized the last three records are muted here. Butch Walker and the band co-produced most of the songs, with contributions by Rob Cavallo, Tim Palmer and Eric Valentine (who produced a remake of Knock Knock Knock‘s “5 Times Out of 100”). But the change in producer from one track to another makes little difference: each song has a polished, clean sound that feels a lot less distinctive than the band’s previous recordings. “So So Cold,” the ballad “Waiting for Nothing” and the title cut all meet the group’s high melodic standard, but the quartet’s personality and quirks have been airbrushed out. “Let Me In,” “Outta Heart” and “Good Day to Die” even include string sections, taking the band too close to adult-contemporary pop for comfort. “Harmonicas & Tambourines,” “Conversation,” the percussion-driven “Give Up?” and the urgent “My Best Fiend” are the only tracks on Happiness Ltd. that really measure up to Hot Hot Heat’s giddy best.
After touring behind Happiness Ltd., Hot Hot Heat parted ways with Sire and Dustin Hawthorne. On Future Breeds, the group holds back on the studio sheen that hampered its previous album and plays with all the energy and urgency that distinguished the ones before it. (Steve Bays produced the disc; bass duties were handled by Hawley, Paquin, Parker Bossley of Fake Shark–Real Zombie! and Limblifter’s Ryan Dahle, who also engineered the album.) “YVR” (air-traffic code for Vancouver International Airport) opens the album with Andy Partridge-like wordplay: “We were gridlocked like grizzly teeth / Lock-jawed and dropped the key / Bear with me, man.” “Goddess on the Prairie” and “Jedidiah” also reconnect the band to its early XTC fixations with excellent results. The surging “Implosionatic” would work well as the theme for a future 007 flick. (It certainly beats the hell out of Madonna’s “Die Another Day.”) The band steers “21@12,” “Nobody’s Accusing You (Of Having a Good Time)” and the title track through a range of time-signature and tempo changes without ever losing momentum. “JFK’s LSD” is a tale of paranoia and desperation (“Let the people think you’re hiding something better than what you got / It sure beats hiding nothing”) sung over keyboards that become increasingly abrasive, without ever detracting from the tune. “Buzinezz az Uzual” moves on melodrama-style piano and scraping violin. A couple of tracks (“Times a Thousand,” “What Is Rational?”) fall a bit short on melody, but all in all, Future Breeds shows the band recharged after its sojourn in the majors. The die-cut CD packaging is pretty cool, too.