Make Up The Breakdown
By: Eric Greenwood
Idiosyncratic rock rarely extends as big a welcome as Hot Hot Heat's first full-length, Make Up The Breakdown…never mind that the band is from Canada. Equally dividing new wave, prog, garage, and all the eccentricities of early XTC and, perhaps even, the poppier side of The Cure, Hot Hot Heat whips out its manic, hyperactive pop with giddy enthusiasm in sharp, cookie-cutter bursts. Singer Steve Bays has one of those polarizing voices, which will either endear you to his wordy, spasmodic euphoria or send you reeling for the button that makes it all stop. I find myself stuck uncomfortably somewhere in the middle.
There's no denying the hooks, though, as saccharine as they may be. "Naked In The City Again" is infectious with its jerky guitar riffs and Bays' overexcited vocal delivery. Lyrically, Bays covers familiar themes of alienation and loss, but his approach is so unexpected that you find yourself questioning the meanings of the words themselves. He just sounds too damn happy to be complaining. By "No, Not Now" it's clear that this band knows how to write a hit song. The affected guitar intro sounds like a distorted sequencer, spilling into a disco-style jaunt that immediately pulls you into the band's tightly knit sonic patchwork.
Sure, the chorus of "Get In Or Get Out" wouldn't have been out of place on No Doubt's Tragic Kingdom with its pogo-in-place, ska-revivalist energy (all it needs are some horns to make it official), but the utter catchiness supercedes any awkward pigeonholing or premature dismissal. Hot Hot Heat flaunts its musicianship with quick, quirky flashes of brilliance amidst all the sing-along choruses. Dazzling, show-off organ interludes creep into seamless changes that Bays glosses right over without even pausing for a breath.
The frivolous sideshow step of "Bandages" is a double-edged sword with cloying cheeriness on one end and undeniable infectiousness on the other. You'll either want to sing along or punch the singer in the face. I pretty much want to do both. The ridiculously silly lyrics of "Oh, Goddamnit" are kept afloat by Bays' uncanny knack for finding the melody in any twisted word combination: "cos Saturday my tax deductions make me function like a blue collar, white collar, I don't know so I got to holler." He spits out lines like that hurriedly and flippantly (and shamefully without remorse), but his delivery is so clownish and odd that it works more often than not.
Midway though Make Up The Breakdown, I feel so pummeled and annoyed by all the quirky gaiety that I have to take a break. Stinkers like "Talk To Me, Dance With Me" and "In Cairo" prove beyond a doubt that catchy songs do not always mean good songs. Bays' perpetual cheeriness is grating. Obviously, Hot Hot Heat is something I can only ingest in small doses. Perhaps, you are different. It's clear that Hot Hot Heat is a good band, but whether Make Up The Breakdown is a good album depends on your threshold for incessant quirkiness and sugary choruses.