If you’re still unwilling to admit that The Darkness’ 2003 hit “I Believe in a Thing Called Love” remains one of the best left-field smashes of the millennium, I fear you may be a lost cause. Though the jury’s still out on whether The Darkness are a joke band or simply a fun homage act, there’s no reason to deny you the pleasures of crunchy arena-rock guitars and Justin Hawkins’ dog-whistle falsetto for the length of a three-minute pop song; and if you were willing, there was more where that came from, as the Brit rockers’ debut record, Permission to Land, burst at the seams with more of the same.
Problem is, there appears to be a shelf life on this sort of novelty. Explicit joke acts like Tenacious D and Flight of the Conchords seem primed for longevity, perhaps because of their willingness to embrace their particular brand of silly, perhaps because they deliver their goofy songs stone-faced, easily the genesis of great comedy. (Extrapolate that to the world of film; consider Will Ferrell’s best films, Anchorman and the like, and note how he never once lets the audience in on the joke. Then consider how much funnier those films are than the incessant winking and mugging of a Dane Cook performance.) This may be why The Darkness haven’t managed to score a true second hit – sure, “Get Your Hands Off My Woman” and “Growing on Me” made the rounds, but they are truly synonymous with one song and one song only – Hawkins’ constant strutting and falsetto runs increasingly seem like the work of a man who’s far too in on the joke to be accessible.
Which brings us to Hot Cakes, a record that seems to find The Darkness progressing backwards. It’s a fine recording, full of big dumb guitar solos and falsetto melisma, but their insistence at adhering to formula has grown old. Perhaps that’s because The Darkness are out of interesting melodies, one of the factors that makes Permission to Land the best record that Def Leppard, AC/DC and Queen never collaborated on; with the possible exception of great lost Survivor classic “Forbidden Love”, I don’t know that there’s anything that eminently hummable on Hot Cakes.
There’s also nothing interesting to say about it, really. Opener “Every Inch of You” looks on paper like an interesting hybrid of band history and dick joke, but plays a lot more crass than we like from the band; compare how Hawkins comes right out and says that everybody wants to blow him to the hilarious extended VD metaphor of “Growing On You”. It’s almost embarrassingly literal, and more than a little uncomfortable. Hawkins’ Bruce Dickinson yelps in “Concrete” are fun, but they’re couched in the kind of joyless Motley Crue throwback that is, apparently, what the band’s doing these days; “With A Woman” slips some groovy AC/DC crunch into a rock slog that ultimately goes nowhere. I’m sure Hot Cakes would serve as a nice soundtrack to a midnight drive, but then again, without solid songs, do you really gain anything you wouldn’t get from the numerous bands they ape? Are they really a better alternative to Hysteria or Queen II?
Hot Cakes saves its most inspired moment for the record’s tale end; there’s a brief, shining moment of glory when The Darkness blatantly Iron Maidenize Radiohead’s immortal “Street Spirit (Fade Out)”. It’s a kick and a half, it genuinely rocks, and Hawkins’ uncorked falsetto absolutely kills; were The Darkness to approach a covers record with this sort of revisionist panache, I’m confident that it would be an unqualified winner. As it stands, Hot Cakes just kind of alludes to a bunch of other bands. That was fun in 2003; in 2012, it appears that the well has run dry.