What has made the Hives such a memorable singles band—boastful but self-deprecating one-liners, massive treble-heavy guitar riffs, frontman Howlin’ Pelle Almqvist’s inimitable yelp—has also made their three full-length albums seem one-note. Songs like “Hate to Say I Told You So” and “Two-Timing Touch and Broken Bones” work well in isolation—they’ve held up as well as or better than any of the singles released by the other plural noun bands of Y2K’s garage-rock revival—but too many of the tracks on Barely Legal, Veni Vidi Vicious, and Tyrannosaurus Hives sounded like diminished returns on their respective lead singles. The Hives’ fourth album, The Black and White Album, avoids that problem in the early going, opening with the excellent (if overexposed, thanks to a ubiquitous and annoying Nike ad) single “Tick Tick Boom,” and then following it up with the even catchier “Try It Again” and “You Got It All…Wrong,” which is as massive and anthemic as anything they’ve released. It’s as strong an opening run as found on any recent rock record, and it’s a reminder of how much fun the Hives’ outsized swagger and bombast can be.
Beyond that opening trifecta, the remainder of Black and White finds the band making their first real effort toward diversifying their sound. Parting ways with producer Pelle Gunnerfeldt, the Hives team up with Dennis Herring (who has produced Modest Mouse and Elvis Costello), Jacknife Lee (producer for Snow Patrol), and even Pharrell Williams. Of their new collaborators, Herring is the most successful in retaining the band’s charm even as he incorporates new sounds into their repertoire; he’s responsible for the effects on “Tick Tick Boom” and for the jaunty singalong “You Dress Up for Armageddon.” And the band themselves produced two of the album’s more experimental tracks: the mellow, organ-driven instrumental “A Stroll Through Hive Manor Corridors” and “Puppet on a String,” which is built not on guitar riffs but party-favor noisemakers.
Unfortunately, not all of these experiments and collaborations work. Pharrell’s “T.H.E.H.I.V.E.S.” sounds like an LCD Soundsystem knockoff, while the self-produced “Giddy Up” hinges on some ineffective Devo affectations that are at odds with the band’s garage-rock aesthetic. At worst, some of these tracks come across as cartoonish in a way that the band’s songs never have before, which is a fine line that an act as over-the-top as the Hives is better off avoiding altogether. It’s the less radical departures from their signature sound—those opening three songs, plus “Square One Here I Come” and “Won’t Be Long”—that work best. Still, the band’s ambition on Black and White is admirable and makes for an album that is, even in its less successful moments, never less than an interesting listen, and it suggests that the Hives might still develop a catalogue that runs deeper than a handful of standout singles. It’s probably for the best, though, that they decided not to go with the album’s long-rumored title, The World’s First Perfect Album.