As we put some distance between our MP3’d, puffy-jacketed, fo-shizzeling fin-de-siecle society and the one that, less than 20 years ago, was living in constant fear of nuclear obliteration, it becomes easier to romanticize the ’80s. And though ’80s revival for some means an excuse to dress like a twit and pretend the entire decade was one long coke party, for others it means a treasure-trove of neglected aesthetics to mine.
Chicago’s OK Go are on the forefront of the mainstream ’80s revival, with Canada’s Hot Hot Heat riding the underground currents. Both spice their remembrances of things past with nods to pretenses current.
Hot Hot Heat – who’s whose EP earlier this year proved to be infectious enough to turn from an object of panning in print to a much-adored rump-shaker on the floor – have abandoned their relentless search for the Cure, lacing their first full-length with mod-pop and alternative elements. That’s ’80s alternative, mind you; the songs on Make Up the Breakdown bear the flowery mark of New Wave kitsch smeared with HŸsker dread. The mix almost works, but the presence of quintessential northwesternist Jack Endino behind the board gives the recording a sheen of ’90s retro. Hot Hot Heat sounds like it belongs alongside the Young Fresh Fellows and Velocity Girl in the annals of proto-grunge, though the band is nothing if not a descendant.
OK Go is likewise clobbered by its production, though it’s a more fatal blow. What is essentially tight, stuttery power pop (think the snide glitz of the Cars and the bemused flail of the Replacements) gets drowned by its own thick guitars. As a musician bidding for the post-Weezer “earnest-core” mantle, it’s a surprise that songwriter/engineer Damian Kulash Jr. doesn’t take a cue from the rawer values that inform the Hives, the Strokes, and their ilk. In fact, what we get sounds remarkably like Weezer diversion the Rentals, which isn’t a bad thing, but considering the current musical scene, disappointingly familiar.
Twenty years ago, of course, both these bands would’ve been revolutionary; ten years ago, they’d have been refreshing. But nowadays, they’re close enough to fascinating that it’s frustrating to hear them miss.