High School Sweethearts: Heels 'n' Wheels

Stephen Haag

Co-ed garage poppers deliver too much of a good thing on their sophomore album.

High School Sweethearts

Heels 'n' Wheels

Label: Get Hip
US Release Date: 2005-05-10
UK Release Date: Available as import
Amazon affiliate

We might as well get it out in the open now: with their sophomore LP, Heels 'n' Wheels, the New Jersey-based High School Sweethearts are going to draw comparisons to the reigning queens of girl garage, the Donnas. And it's true, both bands exude a coy sexuality, crafting songs where they alternately chase after boys and chase them away, gluing them (the songs, not the boys) together with crunchy guitar hooks and calling it "bubblegum garage" (at least that's what I call it).

But by no means are the HSS carbon copies of the Donnas. For starters, they're co-ed: singer Cynthia Santiglia, guitarist John Steele, Farfisa player (Farfisist?) Paige Sixteen, guitarist Bill Gill, bassist Jason Pavia, and drummer Dave Weckerman make up the band. And while the all-girl Donnas vs. boys 'n' girls HSS difference isn't reflected in any of Heels 'n' Wheels' tunes, the discerning listener can hear in the High School Sweethearts a different musical approach from that of the Donnas. While the Donnas have always had an unabashed Kiss/arena rock jones, the HSS are more interested in pure pop. After opening with a bit of a curveball in the richly-layered (guitar, Farfisa, honeyed backing vocals from Jen Brown) and darker-than-you'd-expect-from-a-band-called-the-High-School-Sweethearts "Downtown Girl" (it's an obscure reference, but the tunes calls to mind Chris Stamey's "McCauley Street (Let's Go Downtown)", as both detail the lives of young, independent New York City ladies), the HSS dive headlong into poppy garage with "Afterschool Special". Santiglia's narrator is one of those troublemaking girls at school: "Some kids are doing homework / I'm going out instead". Steele's down 'n' dirty guitar solo confirms that this girl is not one to cross.

From there, it's more of the same, in the best possible sense of the phrase: to wit, the stomping "Sweethearts Theme" and album highlight "Cherry Hi-Way" -- which proves that Santiglia's sweet/sexy/naïve/knowing (yes, all at once) voice was made to sing lyrics like "Yesterday I spent the whole damn night just thinking of you!" That sound you hear is my heart fluttering. The title track is a bit more scuffed up than the other tracks, with the biting kiss-off "I'm outta here on heels 'n' wheels!"; they sound like fellow bratty garagestresses Les Hell on Heels.

And there's more to the band than just riffs, though there's plenty of those. "The Truth About Ruth" is a thoughtful character study about a girl who married the wrong guy (and too young, to boot), "hid behind a curtain of beautiful black hair" and "had a boy on the side / From the other side of the tracks". Of course, the tune rocks, but it shines a light on the band's lyrical ability.

My one gripe (well, two: the album cover leaves a lot to be desired) is that the album is too long: at 52 minutes over 15 tracks, it's a case of too much of a good thing. One reporter's opinion: garage albums should be 40 minutes long, tops. To that end, skip the slow "Never Coming Back" (or at least the album-closing acoustic reprise) and the psychedelic Bowie cover "Moonage Daydream". They're solid songs, especially the latter, and they show the band is capable of operating in more than one gear, but they kill some of the album's hard-earned, hard-charging momentum.

Minor nitpicking aside, the High School Sweethearts have turned in a gem of an album with Heels 'n' Wheels. As someone whose job it is to wonder aloud about such things, I feared for the relevance of girl garage after last year's enjoyable, but not really garage, releases from Sahara Hotnights and the Donnas; albums like Heels 'n' Wheels help me sleep better at night, knowing that there are keepers of the girl garage rock flame going strong.


In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

Keep reading... Show less

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

This week on our games podcast, Nick and Eric talk about the joy and frustration of killing Nazis in Wolfenstein: The New Order.

This week, Nick and Eric talk about the joy and frustration of killing Nazis in Wolfenstein: The New Order.

Keep reading... Show less

The husband and wife duo DEGA center their latest slick synthpop soundscape around the concept of love in all of its stages.

Kalen and Aslyn Nash are an indie pop super-couple if there ever were such a thing. Before becoming as a musical duo themselves, the husband and wife duo put their best feet forward with other projects that saw them acclaim. Kalen previously provided his chops as a singer-songwriter to the Georgia Americana band, Ponderosa. Meanwhile, Aslyn was signed as a solo artist to Capitol while also providing background vocals for Ke$ha. Now, they're blending all of those individual experiences together in their latest project, DEGA.

Keep reading... Show less

On "Restless Mind", Paul Luc establishes himself as an exceptional 21st century bard who knows his way around evoking complex emotions in song.

The folk-rock swing of Paul Luc's upcoming Bad Seed is representative of the whole human condition. Following his previous track release in "Slow Dancing", the Pittsburgh singer-songwriter is sharing another mid-tempo, soulful number. This time, it describes the way too familiar feelings of uncertainty and diversion can, at times, sneak up on all of us.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.