From an almost-unknown Stiff EP to a million-selling debut album, Montreal’s Men Without Hats made their incredible one-step ascent without drastically revising their sound. Although Folk of the 80’s is somewhat rudimentary, Ivan Doroschuk’s remarkably obnoxious singing is already in full flower, and the songs display his characteristically skewed lyrical perceptions and aggressively bouncy tunes.
Reprising the EP’s “Antarctica” while adding an unlikely and aggravating hit single (“The Safety Dance”) and the eminently likable “I Got the Message,” Rhythm of Youth — roughly the same record as The Safety Dance — is slicker but otherwise pretty similar to the band’s first release in every aspect save sales volume. Ivan’s yelping and theatrical bellowing cries out for the swift application of duct tape to his mouth; still, the band’s earnest individuality makes the album hard to truly dislike. The 1984 follow-up leaves the formula unchanged; songs like “Where Do the Boys Go?” and “Messiahs Die Young” are sprightly and entertaining. But other parts drag mercilessly as Ivan’s inflated self-image is delivered pompously to vinyl.
Chastened by the second album’s commercial disappointment, Ivan took a lengthy powder, returning three years later with the best single of his career, “Pop Goes the World,” done for the soundtrack of Date with an Angel. Unfortunately, the rest of what surrounds that insidious techno-pop ditty on Pop Goes the World is only pleasantly dull. But give the group — now an artificial quartet of Ivan, his brother Stefan “in the guise of Johnny the guitarist,” a bassist named Jenny and noncorporeal drummer J. Bonhomme — the odd guest of the week award for getting Jethro Tull leader Ian Anderson to add a spot of flute to one song.
Yawn went the world, but that didn’t stop the Doroschuks from returning two years later with another modestly appealing album. None of the brothers’ diverse originals on 21st Century are as insidiously clever as Abba’s “S.O.S.” (which they cover here), but Ivan’s toned-down singing (on one quiet love song he threatens to turn into Leonard Cohen) and well-crafted, lyrically intriguing numbers about romance, the environment, sexism, the rock’n’roll game do make some of the material fetching. The record ends with “21st Century Safety Dance,” a throbbing demi-industrial instrumental with assorted audio snippets (of the relevant King Crimson and MWH songs, a child’s voice, TV news, etc.) thrown in.