Say what you will: time has rounded off none of Hot Hot Heat's angularities. They were innocuous angles in the early aughts, "post-punk" in a period where we bandied the term about irresponsibly. Make Up The Breakdown, their full-length debut on Sub Pop, kicked out its jams eagerly, charmingly, and for the most part obligingly; it had its jagged edges, but nothing you'd call challenging.
With Elevator, and the two records that slowly followed thereafter -- Happiness Ltd. in 2007, and Future Breeds this June -- things got poppier by all accounts, but the complexity didn't disappear. Indeed, thanks more to a muscular rhythm section than to Steve Bays's drunk-in-a-china-shop vocals, it became a more elemental part of the songs' architecture, splicing together pieces and themes at breakneck pace, with the band sometimes earning its transitions by sheer force of will.
Such was the overall impression of their blinding -- visually and, in a sense, musically, too, in that if there were an aural equivalent of epilepsy Hot Hot Heat would routinely send more than a few people into shock -- set last night at the Rickshaw Stop. Bays and company jumped and yipped about like four rock stars from four different bygone eras, a classic-rock guitar strut here, a silhouetted afro there. (Also, a cowbell.)
They were tinny and trebly, abrasive at times, the tunefulness of numbers like "Goddess on the Prairie" erased by volume and replaced by expansively made-up breakdowns. Had Hot Hot Heat not won me over all the way back when, it might have taken me their whole show to make up my mind whether to love them or hate them. By the end, though -- the lurid "Middle of Nowhere," from Elevator, and then, for an encore, a raucous runthrough of their breakout single "Bandages" -- they came across as confidently, triumphantly odd. They came across as pros at this rock thing, a band with the good sense to challenge itself instead of its audience.
Hot Hot Heat's new tourmates, 22-20s, opened with an energetic sampler of rock in its various historical prefixes, with a classy undertone of clean, uncommunicative Britishness. They played, by turns, shoegaze without the swirl, Britpop without the brattiness, bar-rock without the brawl; "Ocean," the new single from their second studio album, this year's Shake/Shiver/Moan, could have been by Ride, but the following number could have been by Nirvana. We can be whomever you want us to be, they seemed to say: just don't make any sudden moves.
Critic's notebook: Consider the difficulty of saying "Hot Hot Heat." Intentional?