Like the black-and-white suits they’re so fond of, The Hives’ sharp, stylized garage rock has always made the most of a narrow palette. Widening that palette didn’t pay off so well on 2007’s misleadingly labeled The Black And White Album. Bearing flashes of electro and a Tom Waits-ish waltz, Black And White is The Hives’ most colorful album. It’s also its least focused; for a band clad in tradition, nostalgia, and cartoonish uniformity, it strains at its own seams. Lex Hives is the long-awaited follow-up—and it, too, adds a dash of color to the group’s stark scheme. But where Black And White sagged in spots, Lex is a snug, stimulating fit.
To their credit, Lex’s first two tracks don’t try to stretch anything. The minute-long “Come On!” opens the disc with a cheerleading call to action; after that, frontman Howlin’ Pelle Almqvist leads his crew through “Go Right Ahead,” a snarling, sassy slab of vintage Hives garage-pop. But there’s already a twist: Rather than borrowing exclusively from the Iggy Pop-and-Billy Childish scrapbox, the song lifts its main hook from Electric Light Orchestra’s “Don’t Bring Me Down.” Lex opens even wider on the angular, Sparks-like “1000 Answers,” and on “I Want More,” the group locks into a glammy, reverb-soaked stomp. Granted, these influences aren’t light years from what The Hives have always drawn upon. But they give the band enough room to flex its songwriting brawn, which has grown quite a bit over the past few years, most notably on the hip-swiveling yet relatively subtle “Wait A Minute” and the swaggering, ’50s-R&B-fueled “Without The Money.”
Almqvist has also stepped it up. Even when relying on his hopping-on-hot-coals antics, he puts more melodic depth behind his namesake howl—and his lyrics. Lex is by no means short on party jams, but there are also wordy, nerdy anthems like “These Spectacles Reveal The Nostalgics” and “Patrolling Days.” The latter is the disc’s high point: With a slashing riff and primal propulsion, Almqvist sings, “My patrolling days are over / And I ain’t shocked nobody since.” He may or may not be commenting on the fact that The Hives’ music isn’t nearly as refreshing as it was a decade ago, when it rode the crest of the garage revival. But later in “Patrolling Days,” it seems unlikely that Almqvist isn’t talking about his band: “Take a chromosome / Make it monochrome,” he sneers—summing up the something-borrowed, something-black-and-white ethic that he’s always used as a template. Thanks to a few fresh stitches, Lex Hives proves that The Hives still know how to make it work.