The subject of some pretty breathless hype over the last few months, Sweden's the Hives, with their minimalist matching outfits (black suits with white ties and white shoes) and carefully determined retro sound, are self-constructed garage-rock heroes on a par with unlikely American stars the White Stripes: From a distance, skeptics might think the group was concocted in a lab somewhere, like a hipper version of the boy-band phenomenon. But, as with fellow buzz bands such as the Stripes and the Strokes, listening is believing.
The band's American debut, Veni Vidi Vicious (released overseas back in 1999), is a breathless, amateurish, 12-song, 28-minute barrage of joyful noise that must be confusing a lot of big-money modern-rock producers and commercial-radio types ("This is what kids are getting excited about? But it sounds so cheap and unprofessional"). On first blush, it sounds more like an ace genre record à la the Strokes' Is This It than a sui generis masterwork à la the White Stripes' more idiosyncratic White Blood Cells. For all the fuss, you wonder if this band is any better than Memphis' own Oblivians were? Well, the answer is that they probably aren't, but the Oblivians were pretty great, and so are the Hives, in a more calculating way.
Veni Vidi Vicious draws on the wilder side of '60s and '70s protopunk -- more Sonics, MC5, and early Kinks than Count Five or Standells. The opening track, "The Hives --Declare Guerre Nucleaire," is a galvanizing statement of purpose, a short, sharp, shrieking introduction that amounts to a "Kick Out the Jams" for the new garage-rock revival, only better. Lead singer Howlin' Pelle Almqvist delivers some delicious sloganeering ("Had an atomic bore --in 2004/Did some atomic tricks -- in 2006," etc.) over detonating guitars then earns his moniker by telling the listener that, as for the odd-numbered years, "THE GUESS IS YOURS." That's when the true guitar meltdown occurs, and a more invigorating minute and 35 seconds of pure chaos you won't hear anytime soon.
The "epics" here are the singles "Main Offender" and "Hate To Say I Told You So" and the anthemic "Die, All Right!" On "Main Offender," an unaccompanied riff explodes into infernal noise like a messier update of "Smells Like Teen Spirit," while Almqvist's broken-English invocation of shiftless teenage kicks manages a combination of vague and incendiary that rivals Kurt Cobain's menacing gibberish. And "Die, All Right!" is about as punk a song as you could imagine about signing a big-money deal with a corporate record company: "Hey! I got some money, and tonight I'm gonna spend it/Yeah! They gave me a paper, and I went ahead and penned it/And I say, Thank you, Mr. CEO/I filled my pockets, now I might as well/Die!"
But the band is just as powerful when sticking to the loud/fast-rules ethos: A tossed-off number like the middle-finger-flaunting "A Get Together To Tear It Apart" has some of the land-speed-record locomotion of post-hardcore Hüsker Dü. The Charles Atlas revenge fantasy of "Outsmarted" is a snotty, breakneck shout-along gem. And the bass-drum beat and strangled guitars of "Supply and Demand" (opening line: "My boss is a probable bore/Put me hands and knees on scrub-able floor") earn it a spot in the rock-and-roll "work sucks" pantheon alongside Eddie Cochran's "Summertime Blues" and punk-era touchstones like the Clash's "Clampdown" and the Replacements' "God Damn Job."
Only once over 28 minutes that feel more like 12 does this band vary from their go-for-the-jugular pace. And "Find Another Girl," a faithful cover of an old Jerry Butler chestnut, is charming (how many young American bands would actually know a song like this?) but a little awkward. It shows that Howlin' Pelle is more screamer than singer and the band is better at dive-bombing than nuance.
And if the sound of white garage bands playing mid-tempo, soulful numbers is really a commercially viable thing, Memphis' Reigning Sound might get rich. But don't bet on it.
On last year's Lucy Ford, Minneapolis hip-hop duo Atmosphere (producer Ant and MC Slug) produced an underground masterpiece, its gulf between groundbreaking artistry and commercial marginality maybe the greatest in the genre's history. As a follow-up, the new God Loves Ugly is a minor disappointment and an intentional left turn.
Multiracial mouthpiece Slug has emerged over the last few years as a hip-hop hero of choice among the eggheads and introverts who make up so-called indie rap's backpacker/rock critic bohemian fringe. But on God Loves Ugly, Slug intentionally downplays the gifts upon which he's built much of his audience: The epiphany-laden, unprecedentedly empathetic, carefully constructed story-songs that littered Lucy Ford have been replaced by an increased emphasis on off-the-dome stream of consciousness, the keenly observant character sketches replaced by more conventional first-person. The result is plenty of memorable moments and hip-hop quotables but far fewer memorable songs.
The album's second song, "The Bass and the Movement," is a declaration of independence disguised as a battle rhyme. Slug confronts preconceptions that his "emo" rap style (which he actually traces back to 2Pac) is as good for you as granola by unleashing some unlikely thug life then, Eminem-style, slips into a sotto voce aside that imagines what the reaction from old fans might be: "Oh, my goodness, Sluggo went and flipped his style/We haven't really heard him act like this in a while." And he expresses a similar rejection of expectations on "One of a Kind," chastising his core audience: "One little, two little, three little indie rap/Headphones, backpack/Watch 'em all piggyback/Switched up my styles, they all complain."
But as much as Slug may purposefully tweak his persona by making noise "for the women who swallow stuff," he's still a deep-thinking charmer who expresses his love for sparring with girls who "give good brain," still the same doleful, anxiety-laden agonizer who practices hip hop as "therapy on top of turntable riffs."
"Hair" is a classic Slug narrative, a tale of meeting a "groupie" ("Bands like us don't have groupies. Haven't you ever heard our music?") after a show -- flirtatious, nuanced, tense, and surprising -- and then denying the expected payoff by having him and his lady friend die in a car crash on the way to her place. Elsewhere, songs such as "Give Me," "Lovelife," and "Godlovesugly" may lack the focus of Lucy Ford's best songs but are verbal and philosophical tours de force nonetheless. "The first rule is to make the verse true/Even if it hurts you/You have to wear the pain like a stain," he raps on "Give Me." He lives up to the promise throughout the album.
There's a glimpse of Slug talking to a fan after a show about "that world you envision through the layers of tears/The ones you choke and keep hidden when the players are near." There's the kind of self-deprecating anti-braggadocio that's at the core of his persona, opening one song: "I wear my scars like the rings on a pimp/I live life like the captain of a sinking ship." There's his penchant for community-building sloganeering that still never rescues him from his curse as terminally lonely outsider, as on the "Shrapnel" boast "My posse's full of women, computer nerds, and thugs/Much to my dismay, I'm none of the above." And, of course, there's simple rhyme for rhyme's sake (one of my faves: "From the top of Fiji/To the bottom of Christina Ricci/Big ups if you bought my CD!").
And if God Loves Ugly is an album about independence, it's one that cuts in more ways than one. After repeatedly tweaking alt-rap convention and establishing his allegiance to hip hop writ large, Slug opts out of that game too, setting off for a land of his mind's design with "Breathing"'s more subtle declaration of freedom: "Do you carry a gun?/I guess it all depends on where you come from/Surroundings are gonna dictate the needs/I'm out, I wanna live around lakes and trees."