Spin Control

November 11, 2007


The Hives, “The Black and White Album” (Interscope) 1 star

“They say the definition of madness is doing the same thing and expecting a different result,” Hives vocalist Howlin’ Pelle Almqvist interjects in one of his typically hyperactive asides during the rollicking “Try It Again.” In the months leading up to its release, the question looming over the Swedish garage rockers’ fourth album was whether anyone would care if they did the same thing again -- you can only repeat the raucous formula epitomized by the classic “Nuggets” compilation so many times before the act gets old -- or if the quintet would try something so different that it would barely be recognizable.

Dubious moves such as touring the arenas opening for Maroon 5, selling songs to the Cartoon Network and any advertiser who ponied up and collaborating with hip-hop producer Timbaland for a track on his awful 2007 solo album didn’t bode well. But the Hives defy expectations with the aptly named “Black and White Album,” injecting an energizing dance sensibility borrowed from hip-hop and modern R&B and ending up with a vibrant, thoroughly fresh yet instantly familiar version of the old high-octane sound, much as Fall Out Boy did on “Infinity on High.”

Part of the credit is due Neptunes producer Pharrell Williams -- he crafted two of the best tunes, “Well All Right!” and the Kraftwerk-flavored ditty “T.H.E.H.I.V.E.S.” -- but the funk is also in evidence on many of the other 14 tracks, including “Giddy Up,” “Square One Here I Come” and the single “Tick Tick Boom,” currently kicking it as the soundtrack for a sneakers commercial. Garage purists may be aghast, but such sonic miscegenation has been part of the scene since its mid-’60s heyday, when plenty of far from soulful suburban punks thrashed their way through ham-handed imitations of Motown and Stax/Volt grooves and wound up with something completely different and just as exciting. Now, it’s Sweden’s turn.


The Eagles, “The Long Road Out of Eden” (Eagles Recording Company II) [1 star]

Though top-dollar reunion tours and their prevailing influence on mainstream country has kept them on the cultural radar, it’s been an astounding 28 years since the Eagles’ last new album, “The Long Run” (1979). In many ways, the 20 songs on this sprawling double disc hardly sound like the same band: There’s less rock in their country-rock these days then there was on Garth Brooks’ one and only album as his alter ego, Chris Gaines. But it’s the brand name that matters, and the California musicians’ gambit of exclusively selling their new music through Wal-Mart paid off with first-week sales reportedly topping 700,000.

From the precious and pretentious a cappella number that opens disc one, “No More Walks in the Wood” ([ital] “No more walks in the wood/The trees have all been cut down” [ital]) through the epic title track that launches disc two with a leaden bid to craft a sequel to the enduringly creepy “Hotel California” ([ital] “Freeways flickering; cell phones chiming a tune/We’re riding to Utopia; road map says we’ll be arriving soon” [ital]), this is a painstakingly well-crafted and pristinely recorded effort. But with a too-skimpy handful of exceptions -- including the lilting “How Long,” an ancient nugget penned by the band’s old pal, J.D. Souther -- it’s pretty much a joyless collection of uneasy feelings paired with sounds so peaceful they’re often downright somnambulant.

The cause of the Eagles’ sleepy-time angst? Well, in addition to the environment, primary songwriters Don Henley and Glenn Frey (who get plenty of help along the way) are also plenty bothered by the frivolous gossip press, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the hypocrisy of the religious right ([ital] “And we pray to our Lord/Who we know is American… He supports us in war/He presides over football games” [ital]) and our nation’s conspicuous consumption and dangerous overindulgence ([ital] “We worship at the marketplace while common sense is going out of style” [ital]).

How do lyrics such as those, from “Frail Grasp on the Big Picture” and “Business as Usual,” square with the politics of Wal-Mart’s corporate honchos and what many critics call the company’s monopolistic, anti-labor, big business-uber-alles practices? They don’t, but consistency has never been the band’s strong point. That was easier to live with when the still-impressive harmonies powered great songs such as “Lyin’ Eyes,” “Tequila Sunrise” and “Desperado.” But here, it’s just so much phony wrapping trying to pretty up an empty package.


When it comes to why, how and when he makes one of his regular musical shifts or chooses to release a particular composition in that style, legendary rocker Neil Young is often inscrutable. In 1977, he scrapped an album called "Chrome Dreams," even though it included early versions of some of his finest

tunes, including "Powderfinger." "Some songs, like 'Ordinary People,' need to wait for the right time," he recently said, referring to an oft-bootlegged 18-minute epic originally recorded for "This Note's for You" (1988). At long last, that song surfaces here, along with several others written and shelved at various points passed, newly recorded by a group featuring one member from each of Young's most famous bands: Ralph Molina (Crazy Horse), Ben Keith (the Stray Gators) and Rick Rosas (the Bluenotes).

The soon-to-be 62-year-old singer and songwriter suffered a near-fatal brain aneurysm in the spring of 2005, and with the exception of last year's "Living With War," a spontaneous and timely explosion of righteous political anger, he's been taking stock and looking back at his life and career ever since. Now we get this collection of odds 'n' sods representing several of his different musical incarnations, from full-blown fiery jams (the extraordinary "Ordinary People," the almost as epic "No Hidden Path" and the sublimely grungy "Spirit Road") to gently ambling folk and country musings ("Beautiful Bluebird" and the lovely "Shining Light" among them). And the surprise is that it's as coherent, vital and immediate as any album ol' Neil has ever given us.

What's more, Young has rarely been funnier. "I like to get hammered on Friday night / Sometimes I can't wait, so Monday's alright ... I'm a dirty old man / I do what I can / Trying to make a living / I'm a dirty old man," he sings in "Dirty Old Man." It's a sublimely stupid garage-rock toss-off, to be sure, but for my money, it's vastly superior to Bruce Springsteen's recent, similarly themed "Girls in Their Summer Clothes," or for that matter anything else the Boss has recorded in the last two decades.