2012-08-28

Album Review: The Darkness' "Hotcakes"

Like many other people, my first exposure to The Darkness was seeing the music video for "Get Your Hands Off My Woman" on MTV. Also like most people, my first thought was, "This has to be a joke."

It was a bad time for music in general. The year was 2003. To give the reader a better appreciation for just how bad music was back then, I direct you to this link, showing the Billboard Top 100 for 2003. There are some real doozies there, including the number one ranking song "In Da Club" by 50 Cent. (Remember, it's pronounced Fiddy.) Undoubtedly, the pop charts were dominated by one- and two-chord, unmelodic hip hop ejaculations like "In Da Club," but also including the likes of Sean Paul (remember him? he's the johnny-one-note who used to chant in a Jamaican accent), Uncle Kracker (whose biggest claim to fame was being a former member of Kid Rock's band), and Chingy (who could forget the immortal Chingy?).

There was no rock scene to speak of. About the biggest rock band at the time was an adult contemporary group called Train. (Don't get me wrong, I like Train. But they're adult contemporary.) There was a real dearth of anything resembling the rock that people my age had grown up with. It was a really odd feeling, too, because we had all grown up with the impression that rock music was music for the ages, that it was somehow forever. But in seven short years (for me, the disintegration of rock started with Soundgarden's 1996 press release announcing their formal disbandment), rock had gone from epic to obscure. It was sad.

And then The Darkness arrived, wearing catsuits, playing Les Pauls through Marshall stacks, doing two-hand tapping, and singing in falcetto. One simply couldn't help but feel that it was being done ironically. It was as if the music business had grown so disgusted by the mere idea of rock music that they had systematically destroyed it and were now simply making fun of its remaining fans.

That really was what I thought the first time I saw that "Get Your Hands Off My Woman" video. But no sooner had the video ended than I became overcome by a strange desire to see it again. Why couldn't I get it out of my head? Was it morbid curiosity?

At last, in the wake of all the fanfare over "I Believe in a Thing Called Love," I broke down and bought the album. When I put it in the CD player and heard the incredible "Black Shuck," with its almost prog-rock chord changes, I knew immediately that this band was the real deal.

From there, I followed them faithfully through One Way Ticket To Hell... And Back, and later on to Justin Hawkins' post-breakup band, Hot Leg. Through it all, the duality of The Darkness' and Hawkins' musical identity made itself obvious. The band makes music that is both funny and incredible, and this hard-to-swallow combination of hilarity and musicality has dogged many other great Darkness predecessors, such as Frank Zappa and Bumblefoot.

Now 2012 brings a new Darkness album from a reformed Darkness. Gone is the in-fighting and bad behavior. What remains is pure music.

Hotcakes somehow manages to blend the hard-hitting, guitar players' delight of the old Permission to Land Darkness with the more approachable songwriting stylings that made Hot Leg such a great band. For people like me, who thought Hot Leg was utterly fantastic, but who all the same missed the more visceral/less intellectual fun of The Darkness' glory days, this is an absolute dream come true.

It's not that Hot Leg was all brains, and the The Darkness was all crotch. At their best, The Darkness has always had a witty flair that managed to fuse their sense of humor with their genuine love for a type of rock music that seems anachronistic in today's world. The best songs they wrote always managed to include interesting and intricate dual-guitar interplay and legitimately brilliant guitar solos, along with clever lyrics that require intelligence to compose as well as to fully appreciate. But in their more youthful days, The Darkness may have too often drifted into self-absorbed silliness, and this was especially true of the throwaway songs on One Way Ticket To Hell... And Back. Nor did the songs on Red Light Fever lack intestinal fortitude, for indeed the songs on that album feature some of the most admirable guitar work of Hawkins' career.

No, it's not as though Hotcakes puts right past wrongs. Instead, the new album fuses all of the very best elements of the musicians' past career milestones into what can only be described as their best album, ever.

The guitar pyrotechnics are there, drenched in heavily playful melodies that demonstrate a tastefulness in lead guitar work that has always been there; it is done especially well here. The soaring falcetto vocals are there, but to my delight, Justin Hawkins shows off his chest-voice chops, too, and they are nothing to balk at. The formidable guitar riffs are there, as we all hoped they would be; the band even seems to have eschewed the keyboards that pop up occasionally in their work.

A final cherry on top is that, unlike previous efforts, Hotcakes seems to show off a bit more bass and drum work than the previous albums. Or if not, at least I can hear the drum work and bass work better on this album.

So the inevitable question is, Does The Darkness succeed in once again saving rock and roll? Have they produced a masterpiece? Every reviewer is bound to have a different opinion there, but for my money, this album is the pinnacle of their career thus far.