When did rock start taking its cues from Wynton Marsalis? In jazz circles, Marsalis is admired (or reviled) for his backward thinking: If the music doesn’t sound like be-bop from 1959, he feels it isn’t valid. The same thing seems to be happening in rock, particularly when it comes to the current invasion of retro new-wavers. The records of Franz Ferdinand, the ironically named Futureheads, and new additions Bloc Party, Kaiser Chiefs, and the Bravery can be kicky fun. But they’re also jarringly studious re-creations of late-’70s/early-’80s post-punk or synth-pop — music being thawed from the Reagan years. Rock has often looked to the past for inspiration, but rarely so slavishly.
On 2002’s Make Up the Breakdown, British Columbia’s Hot Hot Heat were among the first to party like it was 1979. The band we hear on Elevator has morphed from the one on Breakdown. They’re still fixated on the same era, but Breakdown‘s suggestions of rainy-afternoon electro-pop are mostly gone, replaced by guitar-driven pogo-pop facsimiles executed with the brash enthusiasm of kids who’ve stumbled upon their parents’old new-wave LPs.
The single ”Goodnight Goodnight,” a frisky kiss-off, and the fast and furious ”Island of the Honest Man” recall Joe Jackson before he yearned to be his generation’s Cole Porter. Lead singer Steve Bays turns the IOU in ”You Owe Me an IOU” into a hiccupy hook that’s pure oldschool Elvis Costello. The terrific ”Pickin’It Up” and ”Dirty Mouth” are like forgotten hits from the launch of MTV; you can almost imagine the low-rent videos that would have accompanied them. The grabbiness of these tracks shows Hot Hot Heat have learned at least one valuable lesson from studying up on their pre-grunge history: the power of a tight, efficient song.
What differentiates Hot Hot Heat from their peers is the way they imitate other vintage styles as well. The jaded glam of ”Jingle Jangle,” about an ad salesman peddling ”useless toys made for useless boys,” feels like a lost Pulp track, while ”Shame on You” could be the Cure during their nervous-wreck youth. Then there are those special — and all too rare — moments when Hot Hot Heat don’t evoke anyone: ”Middle of Nowhere” bursts with grand, non-retro pop energy — even if Bays sounds wrung out during most of it (”blame the caffeine for the 5 a.m. phone calls,” he sings, in one of the album’s numerous sharp, conversational lines).
Where do Hot Hot Heat, and their contemporaries, take it from here? That’s the troubling question hanging over albums like Elevator, skillful as they are. Rock’s future appears to be in the hands of musicians who look in the rearview mirror rather than at the road ahead. These bands may be hot hot right now, but will the heat they’re generating stifle rock’s forward motion?