Fanatic by Heart

November 7, 2012

Heart has had quite a year. They released a career-spanning box set, Strange Euphoria, which preceded a memoir by band leaders Ann and Nancy Wilson, Kicking and Dreaming. To top it off, earlier this month they returned with their 14th studio album, Fanatic.

They are now just about 40 years into a career that has seen them attain huge commercial success. They made a wise decision to return to their hard rocking roots. They have moved away from the polished pop rock sound that produced their biggest hit singles and have returned to basics. As such, they have created an album where the songs flow into each other and form a cohesive whole.

The two constants in the band have always been vocalist Ann Wilson and guitarist Nancy Wilson. The core backing band for the album was their regular drummer Ben Smith, guitarist Ben Mink, and bassist Rick Markmann. Mink served as the producer for the second album in a row and did a much better job than on 2010s Red Velvet Car as he kept the band focused and the music tight. He also co-wrote all 10 tracks with the Wilson sisters. Ann Wilson has always possessed one of the most powerful and clearest voices in rock music and it shows little wear after four decades of fronting one of music’s premier bands.

The music uses a hard rock foundation as it moves outward in a number of directions. The have always admired Led Zeppelin and here they channel their sound with “Corduroy Road.” “Rock Deep (America)” is an old-fashioned rock romp. “Walkin’ Good” unites the voices of Nancy Wilson and Sarah McLachlan. The title track presents the passion that the Wilson sisters have brought to their work for decades.

Perhaps the most affecting track is the patriotic “Dear Old America,” which is built on the post-war memories of their father. The use of strings gives it a very poignant feel.

Fanatic’s biggest surprise is the band’s return to their past. If you are one of the best band’s in rock music and want to model an album after someone, why not choose yourself. It is a worthy addition to their legacy.

Article first published as Music Review: Heart – Fanatic on Blogcritics.

Magic Man 45 by Heart

February 5, 2012

Vocalist Ann Wislon joined the band, “The Army,” during 1970. They became White Heart in 1972 and simply Heart during 1974. Her guitarist sister Namcy joined shortly after. They are now revered as one of the classic bands in rock history.

“Magic Man” was their second single release. It was gritty and hard rock ‘n’ roll. Released July 17, 1976, it reached number nine on the BILLBOARD MAGAZINE Pop Singles Chart.

Heart is still very active on the concert circuit and “Magic Man” remains an important part of their act.

Night At Sky Church (DVD) by Heart

April 16, 2011

Heart, with the Wilson sisters, has been rocking away for about four decades. Their 2010 album release, Red Velvet Car, was a commercial success, reaching number 10 on the American album charts. It was a nice return to their hard rock/acoustic roots. They have now sold in excess of 35 million albums worldwide.

Heart brought their 2010 tour into their hometown of Seattle for a performance at the Experience Music Project, Seattle’s Rock ‘N’ Roll Museum, on March 5, 2010. The cameras were rolling as Heart performed material from all parts of their career. Night At Sky Church is a DVD chronicle of the concert. While I am reviewing the regular DVD, it has also been issued in the Blu-ray format.

The band was fronted, as usual, by lead vocalist Ann Wilson and guitarist Nancy Wilson. The rest of the current touring band consisted of guitarist Craig Bartock, keyboardist Debbie Shair, bassist Kristian Attard, and drummer Ben Smith. Alison Krauss was on hand for three tracks as a guest performer.

First the bad news; the band is not as tight as it has been in the past. The jam on the opening “Barracuda,” never really takes off and ultimately breaks down. The riffing on “Crazy On You” is a tad off kilter. There is little or no interaction with the audience, which would have added some personality to the performance. Having said that; this is a complete concert and not a compilation of live tracks, so you get what was actually performed, which includes the good and the bad. This type of live album has always been my preference.

On the other hand there is a lot to like about this performance. The DVD has a nice clarity and the camera angles present the concert in an attractive manner. The choice of material is strong and fits together well as it covers many of their hits, five tracks from their latest album, plus a few album tracks thrown in for good measure. The highlight of any Heart recording is Ann Wilson’s voice, which remains one of the best in rock/pop music history.

It’s always nice to hear Heart perform some of their classics. Here they shine on “Never,” “Straight On,” “These Dreams,” “What About Love,” “Alone,” and “Crazy On You.” It was also a wise decision to intersperse some of their recent material among the old, such as “Hey You,” “Red Velvet Car,” and “Sand.”

Alison Krauss guests, with vocals and fiddle, on “These Dreams,” “Safronia’s Mark,” and “Your Long Journey.” She proves to be a good match for the Wilson sisters.

Night At Sky Church presents the modern Heart well. There may be a few glitches along the way, but overall it is a well-paced and ultimately satisfying concert experience. It is sure to please the many fans of the band.

Article first published as Music DVD Review: Heart – Night At Sky Church on Blogcritics.

Red Velvet Car by Heart

February 19, 2011

Red Velvet Car was released August 31, 2010, and is Heart’s last studio album to date. It was the group’s most successful release in two decades, as it reached number 10 on the Billboard Magazine Album Pop Chart.

The band consisted of vocalist Ann Wilson, guitarist/vocalist Nancy Wilson, guitarist/keyboardist Ben Mink, dobro player Craig Bartuck, bassist Ric Markmann, and drummer Ben Smith. Mink also produced the album.

The band continued its recent trend of composing its own material. The Wilson sisters co-wrote all of the tracks, but were joined by Mink for six songs and Bartock for four of them. Even old writing partner Sue Ennis lent a hand on two of the tracks.

It was another solid album of mostly guitar-based rock ‘n’ roll.

My only complaint was the use of bonus tracks, which varied by country or where you purchased the album. If you made the purchase at Target; add two songs. If you downloaded it in Canada, add two tracks, but if you bought it in a Canadian store, add one track. The Japan download added three. I say just release all of the songs together, but that’s just me.

There were three standout tracks. “WTF” was released as a single and received considerable airplay. The group cranked up their guitars and rocked like the Heart of old.

“There You Go” is one of the band’s most sophisticated compositions. The music meanders with some twists and turns, yet always returns to the melody.

The best of the lot was “Safronia’s Mark,” which finds Heart at its best. It is old school rock ‘n’ roll with a mandolin sound thrown in for good measure. It contains some witty and biting lyrics, and Ann Wilson’s voice remains one of the best in rock music.

Two other tracks stand out. “Death Valley” has an ominous feel as it churns along, and “Wheels” is an air guitarist’s delight.

The best of the bonus tracks, if you are near a Target store or plan a visit to Canada, is “In The Cool,” which is one of those beautiful songs that Heart was so good at producing.

Red Velvet Car is a solid and simple album which enabled the band to return to its roots. It finds Heart rocking on into the 21st century.

Article first published as Music Review: Heart – Red Velvet Car on Blogcritics.

Jupiters Darling by Heart

February 18, 2011

It had been 11 years since Heart had released their last studio album. Their fans had to make due with live and compilation releases. They finally released Jupiters Darling, June 22, 2004. It would be the least commercially successful album of their career, reaching only number 94 on the Billboard Magazine Pop Album Chart.

Jupiters Darling can best be described as a solid, rock album, and it probably deserved a better reception. It was well produced, but was not overly slick or polished. The music ran the gamut from acoustic, to ballads, too hard, bone crunching rock.

The Wilson sisters wrote or co-wrote all of the tracks except one. Longtime band members Howard Leese and Danny Carmassi had both departed. Guitarist/keyboardist Craig Bartock was an important new member as he co-wrote 13 of the tracks. The other new members were keyboardist Darian Sahanaja, bassist Mike Inez, and drummer/percussionist Ben Smith.

The album is what it is; competent rock ‘n’ roll with Ann Wilson’s voice soaring over the top. The albums rock nature may be due to Nancy Wilson’s taking more of a leadership role. Nancy takes the vocal lead on several of the tracks. She is an excellent vocalist in her own right, but happens to be in a band with one of the best vocalists in rock history, who also happens to be her sister. She possesses a beautiful voice, but her sister has a power, clarity, and an edginess that has rarely been equaled. Still, her songwriting and singing leave a lasting imprint on the music. She also was the album’s sole producer.

“Vainglorious” is out of the Led Zeppelin school of rock. It is a churning fusion of rock and blues that sweeps over you in waves.

On the lighter side of the rock coin is “Things,” which has an acoustic, folk feel with a gentle Nancy Wilson vocal.

There are a number of other highlights. “I Need The Rain” is both haunting and poignant. It makes use of a mandolin sound and features another Nancy vocal. Ann Wilson kicks her voice into high gear with “Down The Nile,” which is both powerful and seductive. There is the usual selection of Heart ballads. “The Perfect Goodbye” is very good and “Enough,” complete with flutes is better. Few singers can sing a building ballad like Ann Wilson.

Jupiters Darling is an often underappreciated release as the album is probably better than the sum of its parts. What it did prove was that Heart was still rocking in the new millennium.

Article first published as Music Review: Heart – Jupiters Darling on Blogcritics.

Desire Walks On by Heart

February 14, 2011

Heart released Desire Walks On November 16, 1993. It was a return to a guitar-based-rock sound after three albums of slick pop/rock, which had sold millions of copies and enabled Heart to become one of the most successful bands in the world. This return to their old style coincided with the band members taking over a majority of the writing chores again. While the results were not as commercially successful as their previous three releases, it was still a solid release and a welcome return of the early Heart.

Longtime bassist Mark Andes had left the group but the core of lead vocalist Ann Wilson, guitarist Nancy Wilson, guitarist Howard Leese, and drummer Danny Carmassi remained intact. John Purdell provided the toned-down keyboards and Schuyler Dean played bass.

The first two songs blast out of the gate with chugging guitars and Ann’s soaring vocals. “Back On Black II” demonstrated that the hard-rocking Heart was back. “Back To Avalon” may have been a little more mellow, but it was nice, uptempo rock.

There are two excellent ballads in the Heart tradition. “The Woman In Me” is the best of the pair, as it features an emotional and sultry vocal by Ann. “Anything Is Possible” is a building power ballad, which Heart was so good at creating.

There are several other first-rate tracks. “Rage” is as hard as Heart rocks. It is a pulsating and pounding guitar attack that carries Ann’s voice along with it. “Voodoo Doll” is dark, progressive, and odd; yet has an appeal to it by virtue of the fact it is different from most of what Heart had released. The most interesting track is the Bob Dylan tune, “Ring Them Bells,” on which Ann duets with Layne Staley of Alice In Chains. It is a pairing that doesn’t look good on paper but sounds fine. Her clear vocal matches well with his haunting voice to create a memorable mix.

Desire Walks On may not be Heart’s best album, but it contains a lot of good rock ‘n’ roll. It is also a cohesive one as the tracks fit together well. And while it often does not receive enough credit, it holds up well and remains a good listen. This would be Heart’s last studio album for 11

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Brigade by Heart

February 11, 2011

Heart returned March 26, 1990 with their third album of slick pop/rock. Like its two predecessors, BRIGADE was a commercial smash reaching number 2 on the Billboard Magazine Pop Album Chart.

The band members remained the same for the fourth album in a row. Lead singer Ann Wilson, guitarist/singer Nancy Wilson, keyboardist/guitarist Howard Leese, bassist Mark Andes, and drummer Danny Carmassi had settled in as a well-oiled unit. They again reached outside the band for their material as 9 of the 13 tracks were by other songwriters.

The album was a welcome return to more of a guitar sound, rather than the over blown keyboards of their last release. It also had a few harder rock tunes making its overall sound closer to HEART than BAD ANIMALS The songs may not have the overall consistent quality of the two previously mentioned releases, but the album makes up for it by being the most consistent and best vocal performance by Ann Wilson, which given the quality of her past work is saying a lot.

There is a three song stretch, tracks 2-4, where female vocals do not get any better. “All I Wanna Do Is Make Love To You,” reached number two on The American Singles Chart and was their last big hit single. It had controversial lyrics about a woman who has a one night stand in order to get pregnant because her partner is unable to conceive. Wilson hits and holds the high notes with a clarity that is rarely equaled. “Secret” is a ballad about an illicit affair. The power of Ann’s voice is on full display. “Tall, Dark. Handsome Stranger,” which features another soaring vocal, completes the trio of tracks.

It was nice to have some rockers in the old Heart tradition. “Wild Child” was the albums lead track, and the guitar sound makes it quickly apparent it will be the album’s instrument of choice. “The Night” is based on a series of power chords and is as close as they come to a pure hard rock sound. “Call Of The Wild” is another high octane rocker.

BRIGADE was the last of the three albums that would find Heart at their commercial peak. It remains not only a reminder of why they were one of the more popular bands in the world but also is an eternal document of one of the more stunning voices to grace rock music.

Article first published as Music Review: Heart – Brigade on Blogcritics.

Bad Animals by Heart

February 8, 2011

Heart returned June 6, 1987, with their second commercial blockbuster album in a row. Following on the heels of Heart, Bad Animals sold over five million copies and reached number 2 on Billboard Magazine’s Pop Album Chart. It would produce three more hit singles; “Alone” (#1), “Who Will You Run To” (#7), and “There’s The Girl” (#12).

The band remained intact for the third album in a row. Lead vocalist Ann Wilson, guitarist/vocalist Nancy Wilson, keyboardist/guitarist Howard Leese, bassist Mark Andes, and drummer Denny Carmassi had settled in as a solid unit. They also continued their trend of using outside songwriters as the source of their material. Band members only wrote 4 of the 10 tracks. The two biggest hits, “Alone” and “Who Will You Run To,” were not co-written by any band member.

This is an album of the 1980s. It was a time of big hair, big sound, big productions, and a big synthesizer sound. While a guitar sound is present, at times the synthesizer tends to overwhelm it. It may sound a little dated today, but it is saved by the voice of Ann Wilson, which travels to places very few singers ever visit.

The album blasts out of the gate with all three hit singles in a row. “Who Will You Run To” is a guitar/keyboard rocker that suffers a bit due to age, but is still pleasurable nearly 25 years later. “Alone” is a keyboard power ballad in the same vein as “What About Love.” It remains one of Heart’s and Ann Wilson’s signature performances. “There’s The Girl,” sung by Nancy Wilson, is another guitar/keyboard rocker.

There are several other treats contained here. “I Want You So Bad” may be a little over produced but the background choir adds a nice element and Ann’s voice is excellent. “You Ain’t So Tough” contains a catchy chorus. “Strangers Of The Heart” is another high caliber power ballad.

In many ways, Bad Animals is an extension of their last self-titled album. It may lack the guitar based rock tracks of its predecessor but stands as a well-polished release. It remains an essential part of the Heart catalogue.

Article first published as Music Review: Heart – Bad Animals on Blogcritics.

Heart by Heart

February 5, 2011

There are comebacks and then there are comebacks. Heart’s career was in decline July 6, 1985, when they released their 8th studio album. Millions of albums and four top ten singles later, everything was fine and dandy.

Heart would reach the number one position on the Billboard Magazine Pop Chart and remain on the chart for 92 weeks. It would receive a platinum award for sales four times over. The single, “These Dreams,” would top the singles chart, and “What About Love,” “Never,” and “Nothin’ At All” would all make the top ten.

Heart had been struggling since the departure of guitarist Jeff Fisher. He had been a key component of their early gritty rock/blues sound. Their previous two releases, in retrospect, can be viewed as transition albums, as the band dealt with the loss of two more members, and moved toward a new style and sound.

Heart was a shiny and sophisticated pop/rock album that was very radio friendly. While some long term fans may have lamented their departure from a harder rock sound, they created some of the best pop/rock of the 1980s. Many of the songs still receive radio airplay and are instantly recognizable a quarter of a century later.

The personnel were the same as their previous release. Lead vocalist Ann Wilson, guitarist Nancy Wilson, guitarist/keyboardist Howard Leese, drummer Denny Carmassi, and bassist Mark Andes were all back, which gave the band some needed continuity.

“What About Love” is probably the Heart song I have listened to the most times down through the years. I am always amazed that Ann Wilson could hit some of those high notes. Grace Slick provided some background vocals, and she possesses one of the few voices in rock music that is equal to Ann Wilson’s. When you put the two together, the results are spectacular.

The album’s lead track, “If Looks Could Kill,” was released as the fifth single and stalled at number 54. It has since become a Heart staple. It contains tough girl lyrics set against a rock background.

“These Dreams,” “Never,” and “Nothin’ At All” complete the singles releases. All are power type ballads or a little faster, and they build as they go along, but are ultimately centered on Ann Wilson’s voice.

There are several other very good tracks that tend to go unnoticed. “The Wolf” contains one of the better guitar performances by the duo of Howard Leese and Nancy Wilson. “What He Don’t Know” is another excellent ballad that is somewhat ignored because of what surrounds it. “Shell Shock” is a nice hard rocker and a welcome counterpoint to much of the other material.

One very good decision by the band was to use some outside material. “If Looks Could Kill,” “What About Love,” “These Dreams,” and “Nothin’ At All” did not contain any band member in the writing credits.

Heart remains a career defining album. It is polished and well-crafted rock/pop at its best. Heart’s career flows through this release.

Article first published as Music Review: Heart – Heart on Blogcritics.

Passionworks by Heart

February 3, 2011

Passionworks, released in 1983, was the second of two average, at best, albums by Heart. It followed Private Audition, which had been released the previous year. It only had moderate commercial success, reaching no higher than number 39 on the Billboard Magazine Pop Album Chart.

Longtime members Steve Fossen and Mike DeRosier had left the band and bassist Mark Andes and drummer Denny Carmassi were their replacements. The Wilson sisters and guitarist/keyboardist Howard Leese were the veterans of the band. Songwriter Sue Ennis returned as the co-writer on nine of the 11 tracks.

This was the last album due to the Epic label. The band would switch to Capital Records for its next release.

Any time an artist releases an album to fulfill a contract, a warning flag is raised. Nearly three decades later, it’s still unknown if Heart was serious about the album’s music or just going through the motions. Whatever their motivation, the group created one of the weaker albums of their career.

The album’s best song was the only one not written by a member of the band, which sort of sums up the overall quality of the release. Jonathan Cain of Journey was the composer of “Allies.” It was an excellent power ballad and a perfect vehicle for Ann Wilson’s voice, which just soars.

There were several tracks that may not have been among Heart’s best, but at least they were listenable. “How Can I Refuse” is acceptable hard rock and was composed by all the band members.

“Blue Guitar” is another rocker, although a bit slower. “Love Mistake” is a ballad where Nancy Wilson takes the vocal lead. The album concludes with the hard rocker “Ambush,” which looked back to some of their better work.

The rest of the songs range from album filler, like “Heavy Heart” and “Language Of Love,” to downright embarrassing, with “Johnny Moon” being one example.

Passionworks was released during August of ’83 and at the time, one would have thought Heart’s career was in decline and in a lot of trouble. Just a few years later, all of that would be forgotten. This is an album for fans who want everything Heart-related.

Article first published as Music Review: Heart – Passionworks on Blogcritics.