A horrible hack

The Hi-Lites


Year Released: 2015
Format: LP
Label: pure pain sugar - Echo Canyon - Teenage Hate Records - Trokson
Reviewed by Alex Hannan on Jun 4, 2017
This is THE HI-LITES's debut LP, released by a coalition of labels in or near their hometown of Lyon, France. Nine songs of taut, emotive punk'n'roll shadowed by melancholy. It sounds great, the cleanly recorded but biting guitar is prominent without being overbearing and there's clarity for everyone to be heard. Clearly a well-drilled band.

There's a lot of HOT SNAKES influence going on here - you can see it in the band name, the sleeve art with its grainy retroisms and nods to 50s/60s schlock, and of course in the music. THE HI-LITES choose a similar sort of guitar-led sound, garage riffs pared down to a wary minimalism. Right from the start of opener "Lighthouse" we have patterns founded on pounding repetition, but like HOT SNAKES, THE HI-LITES try to catch your ear with an asymmetric turn, like the staccato notes standing out against a steady pound in "Backlash", twisting into an unexpected phrase ending. I can attest from experience that it's great fun to dip into this style, but very hard to improve on the decades-honed songwriting of John Reis and co. I couldn't, and neither do THE HI-LITES, falling short of the hackle-rising melodic gift or the sense of white-knuckle focus. This is a problem when you've put a lot of eggs in the one basket, so to speak. Worse, there's a clunkiness to some transitions, like the slow-down when the hi-hats get busy in "Lifeboat" or the energy-sapping turns to stabbing patterns at various points in "Sea mist". It sounds as if no-one quite has the long range vision to shape the song so that it compels the listener to follow.

The singer is the key to digging out the band's individuality, reaching for a more extravagant melody than Rick Fork ever would and slathering a convulsive tremelo over everything, which gives an odd flavour to the frequent double-tracking - and it seems as though he's actually toned it down in the studio, judging by Youtube clips. He adds a bit of AT THE DRIVE IN nervous tension and a propulsive whoah-oh melody to choruses, like in "Sea mist" or "The fall and the shipwreck," but can feel wobbly in exposed parts, as in the intro to "Cerebral pleasure." The lyrics are emotionally naked and passionate but sometimes sprawl over the music awkwardly. "The water's turned cloudy I can't see clear where I've been / I'm torn between the world's antipodes, in a way / A misleading path I've dreamed for years, I can't focus properly / In fact I can't embrace the world as I should in reality."

Maybe what they need is some kind of Martin Hannett figure to challenge and fuck with them in the studio, change up the recipe, come at the songs from unexpected directions. It needs more focused aesthetic input to make their various strengths work in tandem.

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