Sunday, March 18, 2012

I Require Justin Hawkins to Make Me Happy, or An Open Letter to J.-Hawk., or Listen to Hot Leg...They're Good.

The Darkness are an amazing band. They're witty, charming, hilarious, incredibly talented musicians with easily one of the most enigmatic and charismatic vocalists recording today, and the songs they write are just so good; infectiously catchy and undeniably Rock N' Roll. I'm glad they've gotten back together, hell, I'm elated, but I still can't help feeling a little bittersweet about this reunion, because it seems to me that a world with The Darkness has no choice but to be a Legless one, and that bums me out hardcore.

Hot Leg was the band Justin Hawkins formed after the breakup of The Darkness (or technically, I guess his band after British Whale, but 3 total songs hardly filled the void that The Darkness left behind, so I choose to gloss over B-Dub). They released their debut (and quite possibly only) record, Red Light Fever, in 2009, and after nearly 3 years of a life devoid of the product of Justin Hawkins' self-described "truth larynx" (you can't deny it, this guy can fucking wail), Hot Leg didn't just feel like a breath of fresh air to me, they felt like air, period. After listening to that record for the first time, it felt like I had been forced to hold my breath for 3 years and was finally given the chance to exhale.

I'll be the first to admit that even if Red Light Fever wasn't that good, I would've been on board. It was a product of Justin Hawkins and it existed, and that would have been more than enough for me, but it was good. It was really good (it still is). In fact, I would call it Rock genius. It is vastly superior to The Darkness's sophomore effort One Way Ticket to Hell...and Back, and if you ask me, on the right day it's at least Permission to Land's equal, on an even righter day, I'd probably say Red Light Fever is the better record of the two.

For as much as I like One Way Ticket..., the album still sounds to me like the work of a band trying to figure out what their next step is. I wouldn't go so far as to say they sound like they're floundering, but the record sounds like the product of a band who knows they can't possibly improve on what they've already done but can't quite decide what direction to go into. I'm not saying the album isn't cohesive because it is, and I'm not saying it's just across-the-board adequate, because there are 4 songs that are downright remarkable and 6 others that are at the very least pretty damn good. Still, the record as a whole seems to lack focus. It's the work of a band trying to reinvent themselves without knowing what they want to do or how to do it.

Red Light Fever on the other hand is fucking razor sharp; it's honed and pin-point accurate. It has all of the focus that One Way Ticket... lacks while managing to hold onto the fundamental "Man-Rock" framework that made Permission to Land so essential. And by folding in elements of soul, funk, and blues, they manage to move out of the daunting shadow that Permission to Land cast upon any purely Rock effort that Justin Hawkins would ever attempt. When you listen to Red Light Fever, you can hear that Hot Leg not only knew who they were but what they intended to accomplish before they ever even thought about entering a studio. The result is 10 ├╝ber catchy songs with subtly sophisticated arrangements that give this record, if not an edge, at least separation from the work that Justin Hawkins did in the past. Sure, Hawkins' lyrics on Red Light Fever may lack the tongue-in-cheek, covert humor of Permission to Land,  but they're no more blunt than the songs on One Way Ticket..., and they're so forcefully fun and infectious that being hit over the head a few times seems a very small price to pay for such a strong set of tunes.

Songs like "Chickens", "Cocktails", "Kissing in the Wind", and "Prima Donna" are good enough to match or trump the best songs on One Way Ticket..., and "Whichever Way You Want to Give It" easily rivals "I Believe in a Thing Called Love" in single-ready Pop-Rock genius. On a whole, Red Light Fever seems far more of an appropriate follow-up to Permission to Land than One Way Ticket... was, but none of the aforementioned really accounts for my lamenting.

What really makes me so sad, aside from the possibility that I may never hear "Whichever Way You Want to Give it" or "Cupboard Love" live, is knowing what was on Hot Leg's horizon. Having stumbled across rough demos and live recordings of songs that were meant to be on RLF's follow-up makes me think, fuck that, makes me know that these guys had so much more to give and were really only on the brink of making a broad musical impact. On its own, the fact that "Into my Arms" may never be recorded is enough to bring me next to tears. Add everything else I've heard into the mix, and it seems categorically tragic.

Certainly I'm not saying I'm unhappy that The Darkness are once again a band, but I can't even begin to pretend that I'm okay with the possibility that Hot Leg isn't. Who knows, maybe I'll get lucky and in a year or so, I'll find out that J-Hawk isn't a man built for monogamy and a new Hot Leg record will find its way into my grubby little hands. And I suppose that, Darkness or Leg or British Whale or something else entirely, as long as Justin Hawkins is putting new music into the world, I'm going to be happy, but without Hot Leg, I'm not entirely sure I can be satisfied.

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