Upstate New York is nothing like Manhattan… just ask Hillary Clinton. No, upstate is full of broken dairy farms and failed factories, trailer parks hanging on the edge of river cliffs, and sullen dive bars, everything just close enough to the great Metropolis to create economic friction. It’s the kind of place where rich bankers come in and buy family farms, where the local convenience store suddenly starts stocking Beaujolais alongside the Slim Jims, where everything’s more expensive but nobody’s making more money. A hopeless sort of place, but lovely in its way, and maybe loveliest in the rain.
Kamikaze Hearts, a five-piece out of Albany, have somehow bottled that kind of beautiful hopelessness, embellished it with slide guitar and mandolin, made it sing and moan and bitch about life. Oneida Road, their fifth CD, is a wonderful record, maybe the best underground alt.country record you’ll hear this year. That it’s happiest, bounciest song is titled “No One Called You a Failure” will just give you an inkling of what you’re getting into.
The disc starts with a count, a thump of drum, and a gorgeous lattice of mandolin — that’s Matt Loiacono picking out the high counterpart, as Troy Pohl sings in a wavery, care-weary voice. “Top of Your Head”, the first cut, is a road song, as so many of these are, about a strained relationship sardined into a car as the miles roll by. First acoustically and later in an electrified triumph, the band careens through the song’s chorus, a fractious juxtaposition of hope and realism that goes, “We’re talking in the car about the good things we’ll have / But today, you’re weeping / Curled up in a ball / Just the top of your head sticking out”. That song is a ray of sunshine compared to “Defender”, which follows, all Palace-esque vocal harmonies and pallbearer-paced drums; yet even here there’s a defiant uplift in the melody and the mandolin flourishes that intimates survival.
Most of these songs are richly instrumented, textured with overlays of guitar, bass, drums, and violins, elaborated with mountain harmonies. Yet at least once, the band strips down to almost nothing and becomes even more powerful as a result. “Half of Me” has the meditative darkness of Richard Buckner’s best work. It pauses and starts like organic thought. Its modest instrumental backing seems an extension of mood. When the song builds up near the halfway point with a stately waltz-time orchestration, the added sounds only underline the self-contained strength of the melody and lyrics.
The disc’s longest and, arguably, most interesting track comes at the end in “Guyana Central High School Class of ’78”, a rustically arranged ballad that, at first, might seem like any end-of-high school reverie. It’s only after you’ve listened a few times and maybe checked the title that you realize the song is about the Reverend Jim Jones and his purple Kool-Aid massacre. “Reverend Jim, he spoke at the commencement / He was listing at the lectern in his robe and his sunglasses / He looked out on the class / It seemed like he might be wrapping up / So we call drank the dregs of our Dixie cups / And threw them down on the sharpened summer grass / Sat back in my folding chair and waited there for my new life to begin”. There’s no hint of a giggle, either. You get no clue from anyone in the band that they are not perfectly serious about the whole thing, not in the righteous shimmer of guitar and mandolin or the slow-paced drums or the revival chorus of “I’m so proud of all of you”. They might be joking, but it’s a buried joke, deep inside the song, and not something they’re going to discuss with strangers.
And, in a way, that’s Kamikaze Hearts, too, a band that you might discover and treasure and not want to let the rest of the world in on. A three-record deal with the UK’s One Little Indian (announced mid-November) probably means that they won’t be our little secret for long…so best enjoy their bittersweet heartache privately while you can.