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.