Friday, 22 October 2010

THE WILDHEARTS - Earth Vs. The Wildhearts

eath vs

Back in 1993, I bought a copy of the debut EP ‘Mondo Akimbo A-Go-Go’ by The Wildhearts, a band which bought together the talents of vocalist/guitarist Ginger (previously a member of Newcastle’s premier retro band The Quireboys) , CJ (previously with The Tattooed Love Boys) and Dogs D’Amour drummer Bam Bam. While their EP wasn’t a great opening statement, it showed promise - namely in it’s opening number ‘Nothing Ever Changes But The Shoes’. That spark of gold was enough for the release of their forthcoming full-length album to be met with some excitement.

By the time The Wildhearts re-entered the studio, Bam Bam had returned to the (then recently reformed) Dogs D’Amour and had been replaced in the drum stool by Stidi (who’d played drums in a fledling lineup of The Wildhearts a few years previously), and the resulting demos are allegedly the same recordings released as the finished album.

From the outset, ‘Earth Vs The Wildhearts’ suffers a similar problem to the EP, in that The Wildhearts seem to be unable to settle upon a core sound for their material. The resulting music hovers somewhere between punk, metal and power pop. While it could be argued that the fusion of these styles gave the band a unique sound of their own on the album, its eleven songs can be frustrating and brilliant in equal measure. Ginger is capable of writing a catchy chorus, but those moments of sing-along brilliance are often overshadowed by heavy handed sludginess.

This is something clearly obvious on the opening number ‘Greetings From Shitsville’. A hard rock guitar riff drives the verses in a direction in which the song never quite feels comfortable, until crashing headlong into a brilliant multi-vocalled chorus which could only be described as power pop (albeit an edgy example of that musical subgenre). It sounds for all the world like Ginger had two half finished ideas and then melded those together, hoping for the best. Once you’ve thrown in a heavy chugging guitar riff during the bridge, it means ‘Earth Vs...’ begins with an almost Frankenstein creation that’s lucky it works at all. ‘Everlone’ fares better all round...although the sledgehammer riff during the opening bars doesn’t instantly inspire confidence. When the vocals arrive, The Wildhearts settle for a groove that rests somewhere between hard rock and punk - a sound which dominates most of their best work. The chorus is fairly catchy and the use of backing vocals is great. On the negative side, clocking in at over six minutes, it’s far too long. After the track reaches its natural end, it features a coda containing almost two minutes of guitar-based meandering, followed by a crunchy guitar riff to close. There’s a definite feeling of this being bolted on after someone decided those bits of music were too good to waste.

Released as the first single from the album, ‘TV Tan’ features ringing guitars, a little bit of 80s glam and just enough bounce to keep it going. Like ‘Everlone’ and ‘Shitsville’, the chorus is a solid one, but without its even better pre-chorus, it would never have worked. The pre-chorus is essential in this instance, since the vocal doesn’t really scan on the song’s verses, despite trying its hardest... The pre-chorus is another moment which captures The Wildhearts’ distinctive punk-hard rock fusion perfectly; as with ‘Everlone’, Ginger’s voice sounds best when CJ is on hand to sing a counter harmony, no matter how ragged. When ‘TV Tan’s strongest elements come together in such a way, it becomes the natural single choice.

‘Shame On Me’ has a spiky riff coupled with a decent vocal performance. While the dual vocals highlight The Wildhearts’ sing-along qualities, the guitar work is from a rather more straight-up metal school of playing. Interestingly, between the metallic riffing, the guitar solo has a bluesy edge. It’s a great, but fleeting moment, which once again makes it hard to understand the creative process here: how did the band decide on that particular solo for this song? It almost stops ‘Shame On Me’ in its tracks.

‘Suckerpunch’ has all the subtlety of a juggernaut. Distorted vocals collide with a Motorhead style speed riff, as the band tear through an almost breathless three minutes. Its ferocity is given a little respite during the chorus, which makes good use of gang vocals, but its anger sounds mostly contrived - and the end result presents a not very natural sound for The Wildhearts. A similar argument could be made for ‘Drinking About Life’, which combines a late 80’s Metallica style riff and a bunch of shouting to create something which lacks longevity.

Taking something that sounds like a cross between New York Dolls and mid-70s Rolling Stones, mixing it up with a suitable sneer and a pinch of metal in the guitar solo, ‘Loveshit’ represents a track where the band sound their most at ease. A definite nod to Ginger’s past in the Faces-obsessed Quireboys, it’s a pity The Wildhearts never explored the bar-room rock avenue farther on this album. Unlike a couple of the other more feel-good tracks (‘Everlone’ especially), which were weakened slightly by incorporating too much of a kitchen sink mentality, it’s ‘Loveshit’s simplicity which makes it work. There’s definitely weight in the old argument that sometimes less really is more... A confident trashiness also sits at the heart of ‘Love U Till I Don’t’, with a chorus vocal of shameless ‘la la’s. The trashiness doesn’t last though, since eventually The Wildhearts’ metal tendencies get the better of them, leading to some incredibly unsubtle riffing. While the metal moments are never The Wildhearts’ strongest musical trait, it’s not terrible – and Stid turns in some decent drum fills.

A heartfelt and tuneful vocal lies at the heart of ‘News of the World’ and its chorus is one of the best on ‘Earth Vs...’ In this respect, it captures what was so good about ‘Nothing Ever Changes But The Shoes’. It brings nothing new to the album, but there’s a great deal of pleasure in hearing the vocal arrangement used so well. The chorus/gang vocals aren’t any different from the type previously heard on ‘Everlone’, but it is best remembered that the more time The Wildhearts spend concentrating on this poppier end of their music, it means more time they’re not muddying otherwise great songs by throwing in metal guitar riffs... This number isn’t guilt free in the padding out department though. It could could have been a brilliant (and very commercial) piece of chorus driven hard rock, but manages to completely fall apart near the end, when it decends into workmanlike chugging, followed by a call-and-response vocal section that feels like it has no place here at all.

‘The Miles Away Girl’ is the album’s greatest track, without question. There’s a power pop maturity at play throughout most of the song which could be compared to early 90s Cheap Trick. It really captures the (often lost) potential behind The Wildhearts’ craft. The gang/backing vocals are excellent during a really infectious chorus; all the instruments sound crisp and even the band’s tendency to use a musical motif where it’s unwarranted doesn’t spoil the end result. While a metal section during a bridge seems a little misplaced, this is balanced by a playfulness elsewhere, as The Wildhearts tease with a musical moment not too far removed from late sixties pop. A similar playfulness can also be found during ‘My Baby Is a Headfuck’; a track which incorporates bits of glam metal, pop punk, a reworking of The Beatles’ ‘Day Tripper’ and a raucous guitar solo played by Mick Ronson. Listening to these two songs, it’s easy to spot those moments when the band members really gelled.

With a fluctuating line up, The Wildhearts continued to tour and release albums; however, none gained the praise of their early works. ‘Earth Vs...’ in particular, has become somewhat of a cult album. Even though Kerrang! voted it their best album of 1993, as good as it may be, it’s unfocused at best. Over the years, it’s an album I’ve had a love-hate relationship with...and probably will always continue to do so.


[A 2010 2CD reissue of ‘Earth Vs The Wildhearts’ contains a bonus disc featuring the ‘Mondo Akimbo A-Go-Go’ EP, the four bonus tracks from the ‘Don’t Be Happy...Just Worry’ compilation plus all the non-album b-sides from the ‘TV Tan’ and ‘Shitsville’ singles].

Watch clips from Donington '94 at the links below:
Suckerpunch
Greetings From Shitsville
Love U 'Til I Don’t

Watch the complete live at the 1994 Reading Festival, with Devin Townsend on guitar at the links below:
Caffeine Bomb
Everlone
Greetings From Shitsville
Nothing Ever Changes But The Shoes
Suckerpunch
Drinking About Life
Shut Your Fucking Mouth
Liberty Cap
My Baby Is A Headfuck
Love U 'Til I Don’t


July/October 2010

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