I’ve written four f**king reviews for this album already. No matter what I try, it still ends up being the central point. I just can’t write about Guitar Romantic without foregrounding the album’s brilliance in the fact that, tragically, three of the members are dead. Yeah, on Sunday July 20, 2003, hardly a year after this fantastic release, frontman Adam Cox, drummer Jeremy Gage and bassist Matt Fitzgerald were killed in a car accident coming back from a show in San Francisco. So in this, the fifth edition, I’m abandoning journalistic detachment, and totally giving in to hindsight, grief and bitterness.
These guys were hardly in their twenties, just about to get signed to a bigger deal at Green Day’s old label, Lookout! Records, and had just released a modern classic. Then they had to go and die. Straight away the names Valens, Hendrix, and Curtis come to mind, but unlike these unfortunates the Exploding Hearts didn’t even get a taste. You could blame their unfulfilled promise on the current state of the industry, where great bands don’t have a prayer against the Blinks and N*Syncs of the world. Outside of any indie-snobbery, nearly half of this album is just begging to get played on popular radio, stocked and ready with irresistible candy hits like “I’m A Pretender” and “Throwaway Style”. Maybe the blame lies with Adam, Jeremy and Matt for not wearing their damn seatbelts. Along with guitarist Terry Six, their manager Rachelle Ramos was the only survivor and the only one in the van wearing a seatbelt. Or should we all cast our eyes to the sky and blame that big guy with the long white beard? As the Mole in the South Park movie questions: “Where is your god? Where is your beautiful, merciful faggot now?” Wherever your grievances may lie, the fact is, on the merits of these 10 songs alone, the Exploding Hearts could have been huge. Scratch that… should have been huge.
In a just world the Hearts would be pounding through ghettoblasters at grade 8 dances for years to come, providing a perfect soundtrack to the loves and losses of restless kids across the world. The songwriting on this album is that good, and these tunes exude a brazen honesty unheard in our too-cool age of irony and cynicism. There’s no substantial reason why all those people who went bonkers over Is This It? shouldn’t equally acclaim this work of jubilant angst. Maybe even more perplexing, where are all the people who lashed out at the Strokes for being a result of trust funds and a hype machine? It’s as though the Exploding Hearts possess all that makes those NYC brats vital, and dispense with all the peripheral bulls**t. The stomping jangle of “Throwaway Style” even sounds like a sweatier, dirtier “Someday”. Throughout the album, these kids from Portland repeatedly flirt with pop-punk genius. Some major would be wise to re-release Guitar Romantic and place a hot pink sticker right on the jewel case: “Another Rock ‘n’ Roll Tragedy: R.I.P The Bizarro-Strokes”.
The Exploding Hearts’ sound is uncompromisingly poppy, but gnashing and biting nonetheless. They combine the exuberance of the Britpop invasion with the gnarly attitude of ‘70s punk rock bands like The Buzzcocks and The Fleshtones. Their call-and-response, sing-along choruses and nifty riffing immediately crawls into that part of your brain that compels you to watch The Breakfast Club whenever it’s on TV. It’s an album that I’ve listened to frequently for almost two years but of which I have yet to get sick. How Guitar Romantic can be so catchy, yet resonate at the same time is a regular point of confusion for me. The passion of scrappy back-to-back tracks “Sleeping Aides and Razorblades” and “Rumours in Town” is immediately felt without being over-earnest. Featuring the Hearts trademark scraping guitars and cathartic lyrics, both songs clock in at about 2 minutes and 30 seconds. The emotional economy on this album presents an aurally invigorating experience, translating the excitement of new crushes and shattering break-ups into mini pop anthems.
Well, another rock career cut terribly short. The tragedy of the Exploding Hearts epitomizes the caprice of art and youth. Too many times have music fans had to mourn their heroes prematurely. At least the Hearts have left us with the invaluable Guitar Romantic, an album that, ironically, synthesizes vitality and casualty so brilliantly. All that’s left to do now is dance.