Why would Hugs and Kisses adopt an incredibly inflammatory name for their newly rebooted band?

Why would Hugs and Kisses adopt an incredibly inflammatory name for their newly rebooted band?

"It's rock 'n' roll, man. That's what it is," said Phonzie Davis, who concocted the group makeover with creative partner Donny Monaco. "That's what they called you if you liked rock 'n' roll. That's why people were afraid of it."

The band claims that the name, a racial slur we've decided not to print, recalls the early days of rock, the heyday of Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley, when some reactionary music fans regarded the genre as a dangerous and corrupting influence. Much of that cultural terror was wrapped up in racial tensions - in those days, rock was still perceived as "black music."

Davis said he and his mates hoped to recapture some of that primal, unpredictable spirit by stripping away the pageantry from Hugs and Kisses' elaborately costumed, mimed miniature musicals, leaving only the music to stand on its own.

"We took that as far as it could go," Davis said. "Our imaginations just got wrapped up into just doing music."

Musically, the new project isn't much different from the "R-rated children's music for adults" that has always soundtracked Hugs and Kisses' skits - a bizarre, beautiful combination of hip-hop, doo-wop, comics and cartoons. Theoretically, new recordings could be close cousins with Hugs' marvelously weird 2007 album The Casualties of Happiness.

So besides that polarizing name, all that's changed is the live show. And so far, that's kind of a downer.

The group took the stage last Wednesday at Cafe Bourbon Street, where Davis and Monaco brandished microphones and collaborator Jacoti Sommes rhythmically tapped on a trash can over canned backing music. It was a punk-rock move in the sense of subverting expectations, but singing over prerecorded tracks pumping from a laptop isn't exactly my idea of rock 'n' roll.

That said, the trouble wasn't with the presentation. Charismatic entertainers like these three don't have to meet anyone's definition of rock 'n' to be captivating.

The trouble was none of the songs they performed resembled more than a rough draft. If they're going to put all the focus on their music, they need to come with songs as solid as the ones that carried Casualties to local cult-classic status. Although some of those older songs were mere scraps and fragments, there was an element of quality-control present that last week's show was sorely lacking.

"You call that a concert?" Sommes asked after the show. He might have been joking, but his tone implied that he realized these guys can offer much more than what they brought to the Bobo stage.

From the shock-value name change to the underdeveloped tunes, Hugs and Kisses' metamorphosis seems more like laziness than artistic progression. Here's hoping they drop another incredible LP and prove me wrong.

For more local music news and reviews, click to the Sensory Overload blog at ColumbusAlive.com