There were two bands jockeying for primacy at Maroon Five’s show at Staples Center: the pop/soul band, the one responsible for the hits “This Love” and “Harder To Breathe,” and the rock band they aspire to become on “It Won’t Be Soon Before Long” (A&M/Octone). But over the 80-minute set it became apparent that the Los Angeles quintet lacks the smarts or chops to resolve their internal contradictions, making Maroon 5 less than the sum of their parts. That neither side of the band is especially good certainly doesn’t help.
The best thing Maroon 5 have going for it is Adam Levine’s voice. He possesses a light, airy tenor with a sure rhythmic sense that can rise to a pure, aching falsetto — it’s the kind of voice boy bands have been built around. And the evening’s most effective moments are the ones that show it off: the bouncy, Stevie Wonder homage “Sunday Morning” and “Makes Me Wonder,” which sounds like airbrushed Prince.
But Levine and his band want something more, and they just can’t pull it off. The more rock-oriented songs lack the polish of their poppier material and soon melt into a turgid, sticky mess. “Can’t Stop” and “Won’t Go Home Without You” aim for the spikiness and darkness of the Police, but the rhythm section of Mickey Madden and Matt Flynn lack the jazzy sophistication of Sting and Stewart Copland. Guitarist James Valentine knows all the arena rock moves, but his playing rarely convinces; when he steps out to play a bit of Jimmy Page-style guitar, the effect is laughable, like a preteen tricked out in daddy’s clothes. It’s all cheap bombast, delivered with a scowl that fools no one.
Opening act the Hives could show them how it’s done. The Swedish band’s streamlined mix of garage messiness with New Wave style made for a winning combination. It was odd seeing supremely confident singer Howlin’ Pelle Almqvist step onstage unsure whether the crowd was on his side, but by the end of the band’s headstrong half-hour set, he pronounced himself sure that 95% of the aud were Hives fans.