Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Back in the Drivers Seat: A Review of Red Velvet Car

It's been a long time since the Wilson sisters produced what I would describe as a classic Heart studio album, or one that has a home in the old Muirsical Box of goodies, but Heart's new album 'Red Velvet Car' has both of those boxes ticked.

What I find most satisfying - and pleasantly surprising - is Ann and Nancy Wilson have not taken the easy retro-rock route and tried to reinvent Heart's successful mid to late 1980s period. It may have been tempting, but surely not as musically rewarding. That melodic rock era was a huge success for Heart and the album of the same name was a multi-platinum seller. They continued that trend with their next two releases, but as the melodic 80s made way for the alternative 90s they suffered the same fate as many similar acts - diminishing returns and less cohesive releases.

A number of classic rock acts have revisited 80s melodic rock for inspiration or to try and recapture their successful past, but here Heart have gone back beyond their melodic rock years and returned to their musical roots. They have captured the vibe and sound of their early acoustic rock releases as featured on their 1976 debut 'Dreamboat Annie', the following year's 'Little Queen' and the classic 'Dog & Butterfly'. They have also managed to revisit without repeating, which is a third tick in the box for me.

There are clear musical references to the albums mentioned above, but you won't hear the same melodies or chord structures repeated on 'Red Velvet Car'. What you will hear are well crafted, well arranged songs and as much as this release is a perfect companion to the aforementioned albums, it could only have been written thirty years on. Like Heart themselves it's an older and wiser album, built on personal and musical growth. It may well also be their most mature release to date.

The album does carry a number of heavier or edgier moments where the band gets to rock out - 'WTF' is a great example - but it's the introspective or quieter moments that set the tone and produce the album's strongest tracks. The ten track album (in its base release form - see later) is short but sweet - and a clear case of where less is more. Highlights include the title track, 'There You Go Again' with its Stevie Nicks-esque groove and 'Sand'. 'Sand' is a reworking of a song Ann and Nancy did with 'The Lovemongers', the band the sisters put together in the nineties with Sue Ennis (who co-wrote some of the material on 'Dog & Butterfly'). This is a similar and lovely version which closes out the album's ten tracks.

The ten track album description is a little misleading however. Depending on what version you have/ hear, the track listing and track order will vary as the U.S. and European versions differ and carry bonus tracks. There are three bonus tracks on the Stateside downloadable version but (rather annoyingly) only two on the European CD version. All three - the ballads 'Closer to the Sun', 'In the Cool' and the quirky 'Bootful of Beer' - deserve a place on the album.

As regards the band, special mention should go to Ann Wilson. I believe her to be the finest female vocalist in the world of rock and she shines on this album, musically and vocally comfortable within the songs. I'm pleased to say her six-string sister Nancy still takes the occasional lead, being none too shabby in front of a microphone herself. The classic line-up is long gone, but the Heart sound of the last few years has been alive and well courtesy of Ann, Nancy, Ben Smith (drums), Craig Bartock (guitars), Debbie Shair (keyboards) and Rick Markmann (bass).

If your memories or affection for Heart relate to that big hair and spandex era (and that was just the guys in the band) and you're looking for another 'What About Love' or three then this album may not be for you. But if you always wished Ann and Nancy would do a throwback album to their formative and most creative decade, then this is an essential purchase. It's certainly an album after my own...Heart.


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