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The Hives: The Death of Randy Fitzsimmons (Disques Hives)

by | Sep 15, 2023 | 0 comments

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By Marci Cohen, Head of Research Services for Instruction and Consultation, Boston University

Swedish rockers the Hives are back with The Death of Randy Fitzsimmons, their first full-length album in over a decade. The band are surprising survivors of the early 2000s garage rock revival. The Vines withered quickly. The Strokes collapsed under the pressure of being anointed as the last saviors of rock and roll, with subsequent albums never living up to the hype that greeted their 2001 debut Is This It? The White Stripes ended in 2011 when introvert Meg White bowed out of the spotlight, leaving Jack White to ascend to a ubiquity exceeded only by Dave Grohl, launching a solo career, forming other bands, producing records by the likes of country legend Loretta Lynn, and founding Third Man Records and its publishing offshoot Third Man Books. Lesser lights and Hives’ one-time openers the Mooney Suzuki chased mainstream stardom with a slick, trendy producer and destroyed what made them unique in the process. 

Sweden might seem an unlikely launchpad for these garage rock stalwarts, but the genre has a long history in the country, as Seth Bovey described in Five Years Ahead of My Time: Garage Rock from the 1950s to the Present (2019, London: Reaktion Books). In the wake of the Beatles early success, “the demand for beat music was so great that several British bands relocated to Sweden to leave the stiff competition at home behind” (108). A contingent of native-born garage bands also flourished in the ‘60s, although none with significant international careers. Starting with Nuggets: Original Artyfacts from the First Psychedelic Era 1965-1968, assembled by Lenny Kaye in 1972 (Elektra) to document the American movement, compilations from the singles-oriented genre kept interest alive, with a full-blown 1980s revival. In Sweden, that scene was documented by the fanzine Larm and spawned bands such as the Nomads (156-157). The Hives arose in that wake.

One of the band’s signatures is winking bravado, a knowing caricature of rock stardom. All the members have swaggering stage names. Throughout their career, they have gladly declared themselves the greatest rock and roll band in the world, and lead vocalist Howlin’ Pelle Almqvist demands the audience’s adulation at their gigs. But they convey that this is all part of the costume, roles they are playing. (Speaking of costumes, unlike the White Stripes and Janelle Monae, the Hives have staunchly held onto their bichromatic wardrobe.) One assumes that when the black and white suits come off, a reasonable level of humility resumes. What makes the stance appealing is that the audience is in on the joke with them.

They also have a history of myth-making. They have long claimed that Randy Fitzsimmons was the Svengali who assembled the band and wrote their songs. In truth, “Randy Fitzsimmons” is the pseudonym for lead guitarist Nicholaus Arson, real name Nicholaus Almqvist. They chose the name of the fictional sixth member to make their creation process appear more democratic and not draw attention to any one member’s contributions. Despite Fitzsimmons’ supposed death, he still gets all the writing credit on the new album.

The Hives have continued on, blissfully unaware that rock in general and their flavor of it has fallen from fashion. Listening to The Death of Randy Fitzsimmons, one would never know that 11 years had passed since their last album, Lex Hives, or that it’s been more than two decades since they stormed alternative rock radio with hits like “Hate to Say I Told You So.” COVID only partially explains the gap. Bassist Dr. Matt Destruction experienced significant health problems in 2013, departing the band on good terms and replaced by Johan Gustafsson, a.k.a. The Johan And Only. In 2019, drummer Chris Dangerous suffered complications from surgery that further slowed their return. Now fully back on track, they worked with producer Patrik Berger, who came from the same punk scene as the band. Despite Berger’s credits with artists firmly in the pop realm (Charlie XCX, Robyn), he also knows how to let the rock band be a rock band. Credit goes to Berger and engineer Pelle Gunderfelt, who worked on the band’s first three albums, for making a noisy rather than shiny or muddy sound mix. 

Like their previous work, the new album is punchy and energetic with enough variety to avoid monotony or sounding formulaic. “Count Down to Shutdown” epitomizes their effective use of dynamics, contrasting quiet and loud sections while lyrically alluding to Ponzi and quoting Winston Churchill. The stomping “Rigor Mortis Radio” is one of several tracks with call and response between Howlin’ Pelle and the rest of the band, rounded out by Vigilante Carlstroem on rhythm guitar. “What Did I Ever Do to You?” incorporates synthesizers and remains mostly restrained but punctuated with thunder crashes. “Stick Up” brings in horns like a ‘50s R&B number. “Smoke & Mirrors” chugs along, exceeding its cliched phrase of a title, augmented by a brief horn interlude. The only misstep is the odd sequencing of closing track “Step Out of the Way.” At 1:39, it is short even by the standards of a band that makes its point then gets out of the way – no song clocks in at more than four minutes, and most are under three. But it ends so abruptly that it feels like a mistake. Swapping it with penultimate track “What Did I Ever Do to You?” would have made a more logical conclusion to the album.

Leave it to the Hives to bring something new to well-trod ground, the party anthem. On “Crash into the Weekend,” they vow to do so “like a busted jaw / Riding shotgun to a monkey on a circular saw.” The track is crying out for a movie sync, with a montage of attractive youth in the midst of a blowout. With hand claps and a bouncy guitar line, this edges its way to the standout track on a uniformly strong album. There’s a place for introspection and autobiography in rock, but knowing how to cut loose is equally important, and the Hives do this with unexpected turns of phrase and without being exploitative or grossly indulgent. They have fun while omitting the excesses of ‘80s hair metal that called for antibiotics. The Hives may have sounded like their garage revival compatriots when they emerged but now stand out as the last band standing.

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