This all-female quartet from Robertsfors, Sweden took its name from a racehorse and got its break at a battle of the bands in Stockholm. The prize for winning the contest was studio time; the resultant EP was good enough to be issued by BMG. On the full-length C’mon Let’s Pretend, the band plays tough, surging rock and roll, with a slightly off-kilter edge reminiscent of Throwing Muses and Bettie Serveert. “Push on Some More,” “Quite a Feeling,” “Impressed by Me” and “Too Cold for You” have plenty of energy and drive; the production leaves enough space for the guitars to ring out clearly without losing their force. Things slow down a bit on “That’s What They Do” and “Wake Up,” applying Nirvana’s soft-verse-loud-chorus template (in the latter) to good effect. A promising debut, particularly from a group of teenagers. (The Drive Dead Slow EP combines that album track with two non-LP cuts.)
Jennie Bomb lives up to its title: explosive rock with a distinctly female point of view. On “Down and Out,” “Fall Into Line,” “Fire Alarm” and “We’re Not Going Down,” the Hotnights stand up to their perceived oppressors — boyfriends, parents, arbiters of public decorum, whomever: “We’ve made up our minds and we’re back on the scene / No use for bad advice ’cause we know what we need / Everything was going so right till you came along / Just try to shake us down from the sky / You’ve got it all wrong.” On “Alright, Alright (Here’s My Fist, Where’s the Fight?),” “Keep Up the Speed,” “On Top of Your World,” “No Big Deal” and “Out of the System,” the band strives to break out of the dull routine and urges its listeners to do the same: “Get out of the system, into the streets…up on your feet…” Throughout, singer/guitarist Maria Andersson, guitarist Jennie Asplund, bassist Johanna Asplund and drummer Josephine Forsman play with velocity, momentum and passion, approaching a skid but never veering off the road. Easing off just a bit on “With or Without Control” and “Only the Fakes Survive,” they let the emotions behind the songs radiate through more clearly without sacrificing energy or urgency. The songwriting duo of Andersson and Forsman hits its stride on this CD; every song has concise, sharply written lyrics set to melodies that go straight to the pleasure center of the brain. Supported by the Asplund sisters’ ace vocal harmonies, Andersson’s clear voice has the confidence and authority previously missing. A superb rock and roll album from start to finish. (The American edition of Jennie Bomb drops “Whirlwind Reaper” and “A Perfect Mess” from the Swedish original.)
At first, Kiss & Tell sounds restrained next to the fury of its predecessor, but that turns out to be a worthwhile exchange, as the crisp, tightly coiled ensemble playing is immediately appealing. “Hot Night Crash,” “Walk on the Wire” and the Runaways-ish “Nerves” show that the group hasn’t lost its urge or ability to rock out. Most of the songs carry a few hints of the ’80s — not the Gang of Four worship displayed by Franz Ferdinand, or the Bunnymen fixations of the Editors or Interpol, but a tense, taut sound closer to the American post-punk style. (Imagine an all-female version of the Cars, except with fewer keyboards, much better lyrics and a genuinely great lead singer up front.) The only real downside is a narrowed songwriting focus: nearly all of the songs are about relationships taking a wrong turn. Andersson and Forsman covered that topic in more than one song on Jennie Bomb, but on songs like “Stay/Stay Away,” “The Difference Between Love and Hell” and “Who Do You Dance For?” the attitude turns from defiance to obsession. The singer who’d dressed down an oppressive boyfriend with “I’ll never be a part of the deal / Won’t fall into line again / Don’t ever tell me how to feel” on the preceding album now asks the object of her desire, “Should I stay or stay away? / I can only do what I’m told.” Despite this limited viewpoint, the quality of the songwriting maintains the same high standard, as does the band’s musicianship. Kiss & Tell may not burst out of the speakers like Jennie Bomb, but it’s every bit as winning.
Unfortunately, the Hotnights ended up losing big-time when Sony/BMG included Kiss & Tell in its disastrous CD copy protection scheme. When word got out that certain of the company’s releases contained code that could compromise the operating system of a home computer, consumers stayed away from those titles in droves. Even cleaned-up reissues couldn’t overcome the taint. (The debacle resulted in a class action suit against the company.) With Kiss & Tell‘s commercial potential dead and buried, the band successfully sued for release from its RCA contract and started its own label at home.
That move should have afforded Sahara Hotnights greater autonomy, but What If Leaving Is a Loving Thing sounds like a bid for the attention of another major. “Visit to Vienna” and “The Loneliest City of All” offer some energy and drive, but the album goes downhill from there. The Hotnights sacrifice most of their tight musical interaction to flabby arrangements with an undue dependence on keyboards — not to mention some unbelievably boring saxophone on a couple of songs. Rather than hints of ’80s post-punk, too many of these tunes drown in the chart pop of that era. “Salty Lips” and “Neon Lights” wouldn’t sound out of place on a Belinda Carlisle album. “No for an Answer” has a low vibrato synth that recalls Berlin’s “Take My Breath Away,” and the discofied beat and tympani flourishes underpinning the chorus of the single “Cheek to Cheek” sound a lot like Animotion’s “Obsession” (without that song’s sleazy lyrics). It’s a shame, because Andersson and Forsman still write catchy songs. (In fact, most of their material here would have been well-served by the Kiss & Tell treatment.) But this overly polished, distressingly dated sound dulls the band’s edge.
Any hope for a return to form is dashed by Sparks, as the Hotnights hide their greatest remaining strength — Andersson and Forsman’s songwriting — with an album of covers. From classic rock (the Steve Miller Band’s “Wide River”) and iconic female artists (Dusty Springfield’s “In Private,” Suzi Quatro’s “If You Can’t Give Me Love”) to ’80s pop (Janet Jackson’s “Love Will Never Do Without You”), ’90s rock (Foo Fighters’ “Big Me,” Redd Kross’ “Mess Around”) and obscurities (such as “Japanese Boy” from the UK one-hit wonder Aneka), the band gives its song selections the same dated, keyboard-heavy treatment that made the previous album so dull. Despite the cover showing a bonfire of musical instruments, none of these tracks strikes a spark. Meanwhile, the band’s credibility has gone up in flames.