- - Monday, August 20, 2012

Hot Cakes

The Darkness

Wind-Up

★★★

When the Darkness hit it big in 2003, it felt like the 1980s all over again. Here was a retro band that dressed itself in spandex and worshipped at the altar of Def Leppard, Thin Lizzy and Spinal Tap. What separated these guys from their Reagan-era influences, though, was their tongue-in-cheek approach; they never took themselves too seriously, even when the songs were seriously good.

Somewhere around the band’s second album, the Darkness lost the joke. The guys became overly serious and self-important, two things they once parodied, and their revivalist schtick stopped being fun. Maybe that’s why this comeback album, delivered six years later with an equal mix of camp and catchiness, feels like a return to form.

The new songs are driven forward by hard-rock guitars and thunderous drums, but all of them are anchored by pop melodies that have as much in common with ABBA as AC/DC. That’s what keeps “Hot Cakes” afloat. The band’s novelty appeal wears thin at times, but these tunes bounce along on the strength of their hooks, relying on craft instead of laughs to make their point.

“Everybody Have a Good Time” is a self-explanatory party anthem, and “Forbidden Love” is a gorgeous power ballad, delivered by frontman Justin Hawkins in a voice that is both beautiful and ridiculous. He makes good use of his falsetto range, sounding a bit like Freddie Mercury doing a half-serious impression of Frankie Valli. Toward the end of the album, when the band turns Radiohead’s “Street Spirit (Fade Out)” into a chugging speed metal juggernaut, it’s Mr. Hawkins’ sky-high vocals that keep the song from sounding too sinister.

Those who hated hair-metal the first time it came around won’t have much tolerance for “Hot Cakes,” which treats that bygone genre like the holiest of source material. Go along with the ride, though, and “Hot Cakes” feels like a bump-free trip down nostalgia lane.

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The Midsummer Station

Owl City

Universal Republic

★★

Adam Young recorded the first Owl City album in his bedroom, programming every drumbeat and fizzy keyboard riff himself. On this big-budget release, though, he lets go of the reins and solicits help from a revolving door of producers, songwriters and guest vocalists. The result is an album that is almost painfully commercial — every melody sounds tailor-made for Top 40 radio — but lacks personality.

“The Midsummer Station” mines the same mix of electronica and candied pop as the previous Owl City albums, and Mr. Young sings every song with geeky articulation, stretching out his vowels in a way that recalls Ben Gibbard one minute and Kermit the Frog the next. What is missing from the mix is the imagery that Mr. Young brought to his earlier singles, all of which seemed to include references to fireflies, emeralds, meteor showers and other fanciful things.

Perhaps pushed by his collaborators to broaden his approach, Mr. Young spends the majority of “The Midsummer Station” talking about love and life. The new songs may be less cloying than “Fireflies,” but they are also less unique, and guest appearances by Carly Rae Jepsen and blink-182’s Mark Hoppus provide little relief. Mr. Young is a platinum-selling star, but instead of owning his fame, he surrounds himself with other stars, which dilutes the very things that made him popular in the first place.

“We don’t even have to try; it’s always a good time,” he insists on “Good Time.” If only it sounded that way.

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Boomphones halfway between headphones and boomboxes

From the mid-1970s to the early 1990s, the boombox was king.

Things changed as the new millennium approached. The bulky boombox was replaced by smaller, lighter appliances such as the Walkman and iPod, both of which relied heavily on headphones. Suddenly, it didn’t matter if your friends didn’t like the music you were playing; they wouldn’t be able to hear it anyway.

Scheduled to launch on Aug. 28, Boomphones split the difference between old-school appeal and modern design. For those who want to keep their music to themselves, Boomphones function as a pair of comfortable, high-quality headphones. Push a button, though, and a pair of external-facing speakers light up, turning the headphones into a portable boombox.

With their built-in microphone, Boomphones also can be used to answer phone calls, and a simple adapter turns the appliance into a mobile guitar amp.

Move over, iPhone. There’s a new multiuse device in town.

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