It’s a shame when a band stops listening to their muse and starts listening to their A&R people. Hot Hot Heat’s Make Up to Breakdown (2002) was an outstanding record, a terrific update of quirky new wave pop a la XTC or Joe Jackson for the post-Strokes crowd. It deservedly brought the band to national attention and landed them a major label contract. It’s been about two and half years since Hot Hot Heat issued that album, and although the departure of guitarist Dante DeCaro might be partially to blame, it seems as though the extra time did not help Elevator. If it weren’t actually Hot Hot Heat’s third album (they released a little-heard, synth-heavy, Screamers-like album in 2001), this album would have rock critics overusing the “sophomore jinx” cliché.
Nearly every song on Make Up the Breakdown, released on Sub Pop in 2002, had the feel of a hit single and Elevator suffers by comparison. There are cuts on the disc that match the best off their previous platter, but there are also moments of tedium that were absent from their prior effort altogether. Elevator isn’t a total waste — it may well make the group into genuine pop stars. But the excitement feels like it’s been halved, enthusiasm replaced by labored craft.
The first single “Goodnight Goodnight” starts off strongly. It’s bouncy rhythm-section work, new recruit Luke Paquin’s choppy guitar chords and Steve Bays’s playful vocals quickly build momentum until the chorus kicks in. It’s meant to sound explosive, but it instead feels like it was shoehorned in from another song. The effect is more jarring than exhilarating, and it doesn’t match the effortless catchiness of some of Make Up the Breakdown‘s lesser cuts.
“Running Out of Time,” “Pickin’ It Up” and “Island of the Honest Man” are buoyant fun, and “You Owe Me an IOU” is a fine example of Bays’s clever wordplay. But other tracks drag or lack memorable hooks, and Dave Sardy’s production, while not wholly inappropriate, adds little to the excitement. “Dirty Mouth” sounds like the band is playing catch up to the Killers when they should be leaders, and “Soldier in a Box” is an admirable but ultimately embarrassing stab at social commentary. Even the casual listener would have to call Elevator a mild disappointment that fails to fulfill the promise of Hot Hot Heat’s breakthrough album.