Irresistible: A Banquet of Syrup-Drenched Calories
When spandex-clad dynamo Justin Hawkins dropped out of The Darkness just after their 2005 LP, One Way Ticket to Hell… and Back, there seemed little hope for a reunion, much less a follow-up album. The frontman succumbed to drug and drink, went to rehab (as a good boy should), then re-emerged with a comically rambunctious splinter act in Hot Leg. The remainder of The Darkness, having also lost Scotch bassist Frankie Poullain leading up to Justin’s big exit, were left to form the gruff, AC/DC-leaning Stone Gods. With a little distance and each camp allowed to sow some creative wild oats, their trails coalesced once again with the announcement of a 2011 reunion tour, the headband-wearing Poullain included. Now with all the old players back in place comes Hot Cakes, a prettified musical flibbertigibbet whose very substance is often its seeming lack thereof.
The album’s giddy cover art does wonders in exposing the farcical content within. A trinity of buttered-up babes sunbathing on a heaving stack of breakfast cakes—covered, of course, in a thick, glistening maple drizzle—seems to pose a one-upping question in visual form: Why “Pour Some Sugar on Me” when you can dump the whole Denny’s on her? And dump The Darkness does—with dippy, decadent abandon. There’s no denying the grandiloquent flightiness of “Keep Me Hangin’ On,” a goof-off twist on an Aldo Nova or Nelson-style power ballad. “Oh, you keep me hangin’ on!” bellows Justin with platitudinous verve, only to turn on a dime: “Till something better comes along.” How sweet. The song’s reconstituted ’80’s triteness has no trouble using you, even with a wink and a nod. But as Bill Withers once said, “If it feels this good getting used…”
Ironically enough, Hot Cakes is at its least convincing amid its attempts at all-out sincerity. “Living Each Day Blind” takes on an “untamed youth in a dead-end town” kind of savor, and while it’s by no means bad, the lyrics’ down-to-earth seriousness seem out of sorts with an otherwise ridiculous album. Likewise, the relatively bleak “Street Spirit (Fade Out)” comes off like a chiffon King Diamond exercise. Whatever the case, even during these lesser songs, there’s no denying The Darkness’ impeccable sense of surface. At times when the ground plans seem less than grade A, Justin and company are still good to erect a hulking, paisley edifice hard to ignore. So what if the Tower of Pisa leans? Look at those details.
Which isn’t to say the hits aren’t here. Far from it. “Nothin’s Gonna Stop Us” seems to be vying for the prize of ultimate workout song, pulsing with an inward-looking Foo Fighters verse that gives way to an ambrosial explosion of guitars and Starship-approved vocals. When all but the drums fall out for a T-minus, tension-building bridge, the song finally blasts off with an igneous farewell chorus—issuing the remaining sparks of an intense, two-and-a-half minute ballet of ’80’s fireworks. If this song fails to make you smile, you probably weren’t born with a mouth.
Others are no less genius, such as the willfully knot-headed boogie of “Everybody Have a Good Time,” and perhaps the best song of the whole set, “She Just a Girl, Eddy”—a bright and beautiful Queen-caliber gem that pits Justin as the guy stuck with cheering up his chum after a big breakup. A sticky-thick Brian May-like solo yields to the frontman’s most perceptive assurance, “You’re not the first, Eddy / Way back in cave man times / Sabre-toothed cave ladies chewed up and spat out our hearts,” followed, no less, by the femme growl of an angry tigress. Such is Hot Cakes, a lively but imperfect push-and-pull tease between an honest embrace of ’80’s schmaltz and a knowing obliteration of it. To quote Thin Lizzy: “The boys are back in town.”