When The Hives rooted around for a title to slap on the cobbled-together UK release of their first two albums, 1997’s ‘Barely Legal’ and 2000’s ‘Veni Vidi Vicious’, and hit upon ‘Your New Favourite Band’, they struck gold. Who could fail to love five cartoonish, moon-eyed Swedes in Monkees-like suits, playing cranked-up garage-rock with tunes that stamped their way into your memory like a dancing foot in a white winklepicker? Along with The Strokes, they were instrumental in creating an early-noughties music scene that chucked up a new crop of ambitious chancers every time you blinked.
For a band like The Hives, though – who are essentially one trick enacted brilliantly, over and over – this tosses up something of a problem: how do you hang on to your crown and sceptre when there’s all manner of other thirsty young turks vying for your position? 2004’s ‘Tyrannosaurus Hives’ basically succeeded by being a standard Hives album blown up to dinosaur dimensions, but ‘The Black And White Album’, however, signifies something different. Recorded without usual producer Pelle Gunnerfeldt (no normal knob-twiddlers, either – we’re talking a production team including the likes of Pharrell Williams and Jacknife Lee) and clocking in at 45 minutes while its predecessors typically tapered off around the 30-minute mark, The Hives’ fourth studio album finds them attempting to rethink the band from the ground up. Don’t just take NME’s word for it: “This is The Hives’ major label adventure,” wrote singer Howlin’ Pelle Almqvist recently. “An honest attempt at a sell-out, maybe. We see it as the last major-label rock’n’roll record that anybody’s ever gonna put out.”
Worried? Luckily for those expecting the worst – namely, a confused attempt to fuse raw garage-rock to glossed-up breakbeats – first track ‘Tick Tick Boom’ demolishes your preconceptions. “I’ve done it before/I can do it some more!” yelps Howlin’ Pelle, surfing a crazed two-chord stomp so insistent that not even the periodic explosions can knock it off course. Similar is ‘Try It Again’, a head-shaking garage romp backed by a riot grrrl choir that comes on like it snorted Mick Jagger’s ashes for breakfast and is just now getting round to thinking about coming back for seconds. ‘You Got It All… Wrong’ buzzes like The Strokes arm-wrestling Ramones for the soul of CBGBs. And ‘Well Allright!’, one of the Pharrell numbers, imagines the climax of some deranged Hives musical, the band united in a “woo-hoo” chorus-line as a tightrope-walking Pelle makes a grab for the high notes. Four potential singles are dropped in the first 15 minutes and, frankly, they’re all about as good as it gets.
Their comeback assured, The Hives use the album’s mid-section as a sort of interlude. ‘A Stroll Through Hive Manor Corridors’ is a creepy instrumental apparently played on a Casio keyboard, while ‘T.H.E.H.I.V.E.S.’ is a disco thump of itchy guitars, one-note bass and wandering keyboards that spells out the band’s name in big, wobbly letters. This stuff would feel like padding on a 30-minute LP but here it’s just a breather before the next wave. ‘Return The Favour’ and ‘Square One Here I Come’ hark back to the band’s early days on independent Swedish punk imprint Burning Heart, and are cranked out with such positive energy and irrepressible bubblegum hooks they come off more like joyful caricatures. Scattered around these, however, are two of the record’s most experimental moments. ‘Giddy Up’ is The Hives’ biggest concession to synthetic tech, the sound of new rave pirates remaking The Knack’s ‘My Sharona’ with samplers, drum machines and torpedoing keyboards. Then there’s ‘Puppet On A String’. One thing’s for sure: you haven’t heard The Hives like this before. An eerie chorus accompanied by castanets, chimes, twanging rulers, and piano like one might hear in some smoky ’30s Berlin cabaret joint, it finds Pelle ranting and wheezing his way through an hilarious character assassination scrawled in poison pen: “You got your education from just hanging around/You got your brain from a hole in the ground!”
Right before the breakdown of ‘Try It Again’, Howlin’ Pelle barks out a piece of homespun Hives philosophy: “They say the definition of madness”, he barks, “is doing the same thing and expecting a different result!” Luckily, it works both ways. ‘The Black And White Album’ finds The Hives branching out and toying with new ideas, as well as doing a bit of what they do best. Importantly, though, The Hives’ “major-label adventure” doesn’t lose sight of the sheer fun that comes from you and your four friends being in a little room, flicking on the amps and cranking up the volume. Somehow, the original new favourite band found a way to become your favourite band – full stop.