[21 June 2012]
Heart has been dismissed again and again throughout the band’s 35 years. Ann and Nancy Wilson were too folky for the hard rockers, too hard-rock for the folkies—and just too damned female for a lot of people. According to Robert Christgau and a lot of other critics in the 1970s, early Heart was nothing more than a Led Zeppelin ripoff band. (It should come as no surprise that a lot of these critics were male.) Then, in the mid-1980s, when they came roaring back to nail some power-ballad hits, their own former fans called them sellouts. (I might have been one of them, before I actually listened to their songs.)
Last year, in their first year of eligibility for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, they somehow could not muster enough votes to get in. Granted, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is a giant boring joke with no relevance to anything, but it still felt like another slap in the face.
No sane person can deny Heart’s position in rock history. The Wilson sisters and their various accomplices have made some of the most enduring albums and singles of the last four decades, and continue to be a massively popular band. Their last album, 2010’s Red Velvet Car, debuted in the Top 10. And without them, several of the major elements of modern music, including grunge and the riot grrrl movement, might never have happened.
Strange Euphoria is the first collection that Ann and Nancy Wilson have ever actually overseen, and it shows — it is light on songs you can find everywhere else, and heavy on rarities and alternate versions. Instead of yet another repetition of “Magic Man”, their first massive single, we are treated to an early demo version, with all the soul and mysticism but none of the air-band-friendly guitar/synth solo madness. “Alone”, their massive hair-metal smash (and current “American Idol” go-to song for contestants who want to sound tough) is here in a lovely live take with John Paul Jones, who of course played bass for…um…Led Zeppelin.
What’s more, the Wilsons use this opportunity to shape their entire legacy. There are three CDs in the package. Disc One covers the early years, from 1969 (an early iteration known as Ann Wilson and the Daybreaks!) through their late-‘70s breakout success. You want “Heartless” and “Straight On” and “Barracuda”? They’re all here, just not always in the versions you’re used to.
I am very old and I grew up in the Pacific Northwest, so a lot of these songs are encoded in my very DNA. But listening to this CD brings home again the strength and power of Ann and Nancy Wilson’s songwriting. Seemingly from the start, they were able (individually and together) to harness poetic images and dreamy melodies together with unforgettable hard-rock riffs. Even “Crazy on You”, which most people know just as an FM-radio staple, here shines as a classic of feminist rock music, exploring sex from the (oft-neglected) perspective of an adult woman. It was really no surprise that the riot grrrl movement and grunge both originated in the Northwest, a region that had already seen that one did not have to pander or dumb down one’s lyrics in order to be powerful.
Disc Two starts with the Bebe Le Strange era in 1980, and zips through next 13 years. This allows them to cherry-pick their favorite songs from the big-hair era: “These Dreams” but not “All I Want to Do Is Make Love to You”, and inclusions of “Nobody Home” and “Wait for an Answer” but no mention of “Nothing at All” or “Stranded”. We also get lovely unreleased tracks such as the gospel-flavored “Unconditional Love” and “Under the Sky”.
What becomes clear here is the level of musicianship. Not to slight pioneering guitarist Roger Fisher and other crucial members of Heart, but Ann and Nancy Wilson here show that they could hold their own without him and the other members of the original group, who left in 1980. Few other singers in rock music have anything like Ann Wilson’s power, range or depth. Nancy is massively influential as a harmony singer and guitarist, but her lead vocal turns on “These Dreams” and other songs in the collection show that she could have fronted other bands all by herself. And their skill as bandleaders definitely shines through in underrated jams like “City’s Burning,” which is furious and scary and powerful like everyone said Heart wasn’t supposed to be anymore.
Then, on Disc Three, Heart makes its case that it is still a band to be reckoned with. This disc contains material created since 1997, a span of 15 years where they have only released two albums of new material as a band. This disc gives us great tracks from Jupiter’s Darling and Red Velvet Car, but also material from the Wilsons’ solo records, their work together as the Lovemongers, and other work.
While this might not have been the most productive era for the “Heart” brand itself, this material actually stacks up very well against the other two CDs in the collection. The fake-folk joke “Boppy’s Back” is hilarious, “Any Woman’s Blues” (recorded here with the Seattle Blues Revue Horns) is powerful and sexy, and “Love or Madness” rocks as hard as anything else they ever recorded, even though it consists of nothing more than Ann singing, Nancy playing harmonica and an astonished crowd clapping and yelling along.
And for those of you who want MORE EARLY ROCKIN’ HEART STUFF PLEASE, there is an extra disc here: an entire hour-long concert from 1976. Filmed at Washington State University just as Heart was breaking in the U.S., this show gives you everything you need to see what a beast the early band was, from Ann’s banshee wailing and Nancy’s stunning acoustic and electric guitar work to Fisher’s excellent rock leads—and superhero/pajamas attire—and the sight of a whole lot of bad 1970s hair in the crowd. (I can attest that this hair persisted until at least 1984 as far south as Canby, Oregon.)
Strange Euphoria is an incredibly strong collection by one of the most important and wonderful bands of our time. Perfectly timed, too—their new album, Fanatic, is coming out later this year, and I will plunk down my money as a fan.