Once upon a time, there was this band from Boston and they were called the Beatings. In 2002, they released Italiano, an album that had critics all across America name-checking Hüsker Dü, Superchunk, the Pixies, and countless others ‘80s college rockers in their reviews. All was well. So can someone please explain to me how their latest EP, The Heart, the Product, the Machine and the Asshole, barely rises about the level of muddled no-fi dreck?
First of all, though, there’s that inscrutable album title to wade through. According to singer/guitarist Tony Skalicky, The Heart, the Product, the Machine and the Asshole refers to Skalicky, bassist Erin Dalbec, drummer Dennis Grabowski and singer/guitarist Eldridge Rodriguez, respectively, but “[Eldridge] is not really an asshole and [Skalicky’s] not really the heart.” That’s fantastic—an album title that’s both headscratchingly vulgar and inaccurate to boot.
But that’s hardly a problem compared to the music on The Heart…. The Beatings may not have wanted to follow the same musical path they blazed on Italiano, but there’s little of that album’s DNA to be found on The Heart…. The first three tracks are where most of the trouble lies, and given that it’s only a six-song EP, that’s saying a lot. Opener “American Standard”, which seems to be about Mexican laborers (apparently a bigger problem in Boston than anyone knew; a Big Dig impropriety?), is little more than six-plus minutes of lo-fi shuffling, with murky, detached, poorly recorded vocals and Dalbec and Grabowski’s plodding rhythm section. The tune’s lone saving grace is a fuzzy guitar solo that dares to conjure up the Boston rock ghosts of Dinosaur Jr. and early Buffalo Tom. Unfortunately, it’s a case of too-little, too-late.
“Organ Donor Regrets” at least boasts a better title than the album itself, but it too is more of the same: plodding, faraway-sounding vocals that finally give way to a just-OK rootsy groove. I understand the lo-fi/no-fi aesthetic, but the Beatings are betrayed by their own newfangled sound.
It all bottoms out on the seven-minute long “Transvestite Bar”, where every couplet is groan-worthy, i.e., “The bars are closed / But I can’t go to sleep in my panty hose” and “Just cuz I go / Don’t mean that I’m queer”. Again, it’s too heavy—even with a banjo and an organ—and it takes too long to get to its payoff. Here, it’s a team of deep-voiced male backup singers. “Transvestite Bar” blurs, if not outright demolishes, the line between novelty song, (possible) band in-joke and studio fuckery. It’s this last component that seemingly drives the entire EP. It’s the sound of a band confounding expectations.
The Beatings begin to right the ship on the EP’s back half. “This Year” finds Dalbec doing her best Liz Phair impression on the vocals, and with the surf-ish drums and nervy, elastic guitars, the tune surely approximates the Beatings’ earlier Pixies-esque efforts. Meanwhile, the haunting “Sick Day” is a pitch-black dirge (these guys are all over the stylistic map, if you haven’t figured it out yet) about alcoholism. With anguished lines like “I don’t think I’m gonna drink tonight!” it strikes a much deeper chord than tunes about itinerant laborers and drag queens. The scruffy production values serve the song well, too, for a change. It’s not an easy listen—it’s downright gut-wrenching—but it’s well-crafted, and almost redeems the EP.
The Beatings seem hell-bent on zigging instead of zagging at every available turn. Heck, on their label’s website, they confess that The Heart… is “a dark, stylistic change”. Well, duh. Forget everything you thought you knew about the band that made Italiano such an out-of-left-field winner. And while you’re at it, forget about The Heart, the Product, the Machine and the Asshole.