Two tracks into The Black and White Album, the Hives’ leading man, Howlin’ Pelle Almqvist, effectively summarizes the dilemma that his band faces on this, its fourth record:
“They say the definition of madness is doing the same thing and expecting a different result,” Almqvist deadpans during an instrumental break in “Try It Again,” just before the rest of the group kicks in and brings the song to a big, cheerleader-backed finish.
Really, you could argue that the members of the Hives made a career of “doing the same thing” on their first three albums, albeit with marked improvements on each go-around. The noisy clatter of Barely Legal (1997) gave way to the streamlined garage rock of Veni Vidi Vicious (2000), which the band further refined and polished on Tyrannosaurus Hives (2004). By the time Tyrannosaurus was released, the Hives were working at the peak of their powers, both in terms of bristling speed (“See Through Head”) and Stonesy swagger (“Walk Idiot Walk”).
But here’s the problem: The Hives have never been shy about their desire to conquer the world. Tyrannosaurus sounded like a world-beater, but didn’t take the Hives as far as they would have liked. So The Black and White Album finds the group trying to branch out while still maintaining the trappings of its familiar sound, presumably in order to swell its legions of fans and make a grab at superstardom. Unfortunately, the result is neither an improvement on the old formula nor an inspired reinvention. It’s “the same thing,” just with a few extra distractions thrown into the mix.
The most notable stunt that the Hives pull on this outing is bringing in Pharrell Williams to produce “T.H.E.H.I.V.E.S.,” a move that could have easily backfired. As it is, though, this track plays like the funkiest spelling lesson ever put to tape. Pharrell’s fingerprints are all over the arrangement (just check the Neptunes-approved keyboards on the chorus), and his participation breathes some fresh air into the Hives’ quirky self-promotion machine.
The other attempts at exploration fare poorly, however. “Giddy Up!” is a prime example of why the album won’t have a legacy: Bands have a strange attachment to their most ridiculous, grating material. The creepy “Puppet on a String,” meanwhile, gives Almqvist the chance to emulate his namesake Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. Perhaps over-excited by the opportunity, he overplays his screeching and growling and leaves the track sounding more novel than noteworthy.
When the Hives stick to the “black and white” rock stylings that got them this far, the results are pretty much what you’d expect: Damn good. “Tick Tick Boom” is pure formula, but the Hives’ well-honed charisma and enthusiasm make the track work. “Hey Little World” and “Won’t Be Long” showcase the group’s muscular playing and knack for wringing the most mileage out of simplistic chord structures. As a throwback to the band’s punk roots, “You Got It All . . . Wrong” also stands out, mainly because it finds the group wailing away without any pretense or self-conscious polish.
So are the Hives stuck in a stylistic corner, or is The Black and White Album just a rocky bridge to something new and revelatory from the group? The material seems to drop hints in both directions, but experience has shown that the Hives are not a group to trifle with. They’ll find their way, even if it means a few maddening bouts with repetition along the road.