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Review: Heart, “Strange Euphoria”

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You’ve gotta have Heart.  For over forty years, sisters Ann and Nancy Wilson have been rocking and rolling, singing and strumming, and did I mention rocking?  Often considered the female answer to Led Zeppelin, Heart has outlived that famous band, incorporating Zeppelin’s furious attack into music also influenced by pop and folk.  The new 3-CD/1-DVD set Strange Euphoria (Epic/Legacy 88691 93736 2, 2012) is the first collection of Heart’s catalogue selected by the Wilsons and the band’s first multi-disc box, drawing on their thirteen studio albums, live recordings and original demos.  With over 20 previously unreleased tracks, it offers a wealth of material for collectors and fans alike.

It’s both strange and euphoric, though: the latter because of the sheer power of the music.  The former, because it’s neither fish nor fowl.  Though taken from songs recorded between 1969 and 2010, it’s not quite a true, all-encompassing career retrospective, as it’s lacking key hits such as “What About Love” and “All I Wanna Do is Make Love to You.”  Other favorites are heard in alternate versions: “Barracuda,” for one, is heard in a live version rather than the hit single.  But it’s not a strict “from the vaults” outing, either, with some major cuts such as “Alone” and “These Dreams” represented in their familiar versions The result is a personal, incomplete and idiosyncratic journey through the music, with its creators as your tour guides.

When Heart burst onto the scene early in 1976, the top female artists of the day were Ladies of the Canyon (Linda Ronstadt), soul sisters (Minnie Riperton, Patti LaBelle) and an Australian pop queen (Olivia Newton-John).  Needless to say, there was no other prominent band quite like the one formed by the sisters from Seattle.  With guitarist Roger Fisher, keyboardist/guitarist Howard Leese and bassist Steve Fossen, drummer Michael Derosier, lead vocalist Ann and lead guitarist Nancy first made a splash with the Dreamboat Annie album, released appropriately enough on Valentine’s Day, 1976.  But Strange Euphoria begins much earlier, and Disc One covers the period between the 1969 single “Through Eyes and Glass,” as performed by Ann Wilson and the Daybreaks, and the 1978 album Dog and Butterfly.  The spare, haunting folk-rock melody of “Through Eyes and Glass,” adorned with acoustic guitar and flute, doesn’t seem to have much in common with “Magic Man” or “Alone” at first glance.  But by eschewing many full productions in favor of raw, stripped-down demos, the box set makes the case that the song was always the thing with Heart.

Hit the jump to dig deep with the Wilson sisters!

Ann’s full-throated, impassioned vocals were already in place on “Through Eyes and Glass,” the first original recorded song from the team of Wilson and Wilson.  It’s not too far off from “How Deep It Goes,” the first song Ann wrote for Dreamboat Annie which is also included here in demo form.  In this style, the song has a spellbinding Joni Mitchell feel to it.  Demos of “Magic Man” (the lead-off song on Dreamboat) and “Crazy on You” are similarly revealing.  The attitude of “Magic Man” was apparent from this early attempt at the song, much like the famous riff of “Crazy on You” was intact from inception.   The demos don’t replace the iconic original versions, and the absence of the studio takes of both songs make Strange Euphoria less than definitive as a career overview.  But for longtime fans, these demos are a real treat, capturing the spirit of the songs in their arguably most pure form.  It’s worth noting that these songs were selected as the singles off Dreamboat Annie; other titles such as the catchy, melodic “(Love Me Like Music) I’ll Be Your Song” (not on the box set) might have been just as viable, but there was something unusual and striking about these two hard-rocking girl singers and so that aspect of their musical persona was emphasized from the start.  Also from that first album, the multiple versions of title song “Dreamboat Annie” have here been combined into one track for the first time, and a live version of “White Lightning and Wine” makes its first appearance from a performance at Seattle’s Aquarius Tavern.

Heart’s subsequent albums continued to develop a distinct sound still influenced by folk but with the forceful noise of rock.   “Love Alive,” from 1977’s Little Queen, transforms from a ballad to a full-on blast of sound inspired by Zeppelin’s “Battle of Nevermore” (an “ancient haunting” as per the liner notes!) and indeed, the entire Little Queen album has a mysterious, fantasy feel.  But that album’s standout track was the storming, aggressive “Barracuda,” heard here in a live version from the Universal Amphitheatre, circa 1977.  The song made it clear that you wouldn’t want to get on the Wilson sisters’ bad side:  “You lying so low in the weeds/Bet you gonna ambush me/You’d have me down on my knees/Wouldn’t you, Barracuda?”  Reportedly inspired by an obnoxious record executive, it takes a much less sympathetic view of that rare breed than, say, Joni’s “Free Man in Paris”!

1978’s Magazine proved controversial for Heart, originally released on Mushroom Records in an unauthorized edition assembled without the band’s consent.   The album is represented here by “Hear Song” and “Heartless,” both in original demo form.  (It appears that these are not the same early versions released by Mushroom on the withdrawn first version of the album.)  Nancy Wilson asserts in the liner notes that “Heartless,” with its fierce, shouted refrain, was inspired by Elton John, but the song has a ferocious, near-punk attack, too.  The demo is nearly a full production but less slick than the official version (“He thinks it’s so cool to be cold/never realize the way love dies/when you crucify its soul”).  From Dog and Butterfly, the title song is heard in an acoustic demo, and it’s a rare treat to hear Ann Wilson’s vocal so unencumbered by production.  The ravishing song of memory was the first collaboration with the Wilsons’ friend and future Lovemonger, Sue Ennis.  The album would also prove to be the last for Roger Fisher.  (Heart would continue to go through many personnel changes too numerous to mention here.)  The album was cannily split with rockers on one side and ballads on the other.  From the softer side, “Nada One” expanded the group’s musical canvas with strings and a swooping melody line that actually seems to anticipate their big power ballad sound of the 1980s.

That major change in the band’s style came in 1985 with the Capitol Records release of Heart, addressed on the second disc of three.  It takes us from 1980’s underrated Epic album Bebe le Strange right up through 1993, including Heart’s reinvention as eighties pop goddesses.  But it wasn’t a period wholly embraced by Ann and Nancy Wilson.  Ann frankly comments in the liner notes, “We were lucky to slip any of our songs through that pinhole that our label, producer and manager put up at that time of what ‘Heart’ was in the 1980s.”  Indeed, the women at the center of Heart were cast as singers rather than songwriters, and that didn’t sit well with them, despite the massive success of albums like Heart and Bad Animals (1987).  So fans of this “middle period” for Heart might be disappointed with how quickly Strange Euphoria addresses the years of big drums and bigger hair.  Like many seventies-rock heroes in the strange new world of Reagan-era America, Heart was encouraged to take a slick, mainstream path of “more pop, less rock.”

Heart’s sound had always been tough yet feminine; a highlight of Disc 2 is the original studio recording of self-described “feminist anthem” “Even It Up,” bolstered by the power of Tower of Power horn section.  But Heart was capable of tender moments, too, whether the acoustic, classically-influenced “Silver Wheels II,” the piano-and-vocal “Sweet Darlin’” or the ruminative John Lennon tribute “Angels.”  There wasn’t much room for reflection in producer Ron Nevison’s vision of the band, though.  The Nevison-helmed Heart introduced the propulsive “These Dreams,” written by Elton John’s moonlighting writing partner Bernie Taupin with Martin Page.  (The duo also penned another eighties anthem, “We Built This City,” for the Jefferson-less Starship.)  Nancy Wilson took a rare lead on this smash track which became Heart’s very first No. 1.  In all, four straight Top 10 hits came from this one album including two not on Strange Euphoria, “What About Love” and “Nothin’ at All.”  The fourth, “Never,” is heard in a fine live version with Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones adding authenticity to the song.  The hits continued with Billy Steinberg and Tom Kelly’s dramatic “Alone” from 1987’s Bad Animals, which again found Ann and Nancy taking a backseat as songwriters.  Perhaps as a result, the Capitol period isn’t addressed in nearly as much detail as the Mushroom, Portrait and Epic years.  There’s nothing at all from Brigade (1990) and just one track from Desire Walks On (1993), although a handful of songs are represented in alternate versions.  Only four songs on the entire box set don’t bear compositional credits from one or both of the Wilson sisters, making Strange Euphoria most valuable as a survey of their songwriting.

The third and final CD expands the purview a bit, taking in solo turns from a separated Ann and Nancy as well as recordings by The Lovemongers, the Wilson sisters’ other band.  Although there’s a detour to 1980 for the box set’s title track, the emphasis is on the period of 1997-present, including Heart’s most recent album, 2010’s Red Velvet Car.  As Heart took a break between 1993 and 2004, the diversions aren’t surprising, as both sisters continued to make music.  Often that music took on a pure, acoustic sound rather than the electrified rock or pop of previous decades.  On Nancy’s 1999 “Everything” (from Live at McCabe’s Guitar Shop), she could fit right in with the Lilith Fair-style women of the younger generation, many of whom likely found their own voices while listening to Heart!  You just might find yourself swaying to its intense but seductive melody. But time didn’t diminish Heart’s fire, either.  From 2004’s Jupiter’s Darling comes “Fallen Ones,” a hard-rocking salute to those veterans who didn’t return from war.  (“Lost Angel,” heard here in a performance from 2006’s VH1 Decades of Rock Live, was inspired by a trip to Iraq, and is another personal rumination on war, as is Ann’s solo “Little Problems, Little Lies,” extracted from her solo album Hope and Glory.)  “Enough,” Ann Wilson and Craig Bartock’s song from Jupiter’s, proves that Heart could write their own power ballads as strong as those they recorded in the 1980s.

A major treat on Strange Euphoria is the inclusion of a number of songs not otherwise released.  It’s hard to believe that the demo of “Lucky Day,” written with Lisa Dalbello, has languished in the vaults until now with its insanely catchy chorus.  1986’s “Unconditional Love” was informed by a love of early girl groups, but has a funkier edge to it.  “Any Woman’s Blues” never felt right for Ann or Nancy as a Heart song, but the punchy R&B homage (“Music will play, we’ll get carried away…”) sounds just right here.  A number of songs come from the sisters’ very own stash of “basement tapes,” many recorded in the 1980s.  Based on the quality of “High Romance,” an entire basement tapes album might be in order!  Their lighter side shines through on “Boppy’s Back,” an ode to Ann’s dog (“Together we’ve been to hell and back…”).  According to Ann, it was recorded as “our little in-joke to respond to the outside pressure that was always telling us we had to come up with ‘the next big ‘80s thing’ for Heart.”  If only the Wilsons had chosen to include “Nothing But Love,” performed in 1999 by Ann and Nancy on their acoustic tour, and co-written by Ann with Burt Bacharach!  The song shows yet another soulful side of Heart, and would have made a fantastic inclusion here.

Accompanying all of this music is a DVD featuring The Second Ending Featuring Heart, a television performance for Washington’s KWSU-TV circa 1976.  The lion’s share of the songs in the hour-long concert is drawn from Dreamboat Annie, including the title song, “Crazy on You,” “Magic Man,” “Sing Child,” “Soul of the Sea” and “White Lightning and Wine.”  “Heartless” would later appear on Magazine.  It’s a rare time capsule of Ann, Nancy, Roger Fisher, Steve Fossen, Howard Leese and Michael Derosier in hungry, peak form.  The no-frills broadcast emphasizes the music from the opening jam session, spotlighting Ann’s flute and the tight guitar interplay of Nancy and Roger Fisher, to the finale of “Magic Man.”  Each instrumentalist gets a chance to shine before the band launches into a rip-roaring “Heartless.”  Ann already has her rock star postures down during each song, even if she’s low-key in the between-song chatter.  The buttoned-up audience is a source of amusement; introducing “White Lightning and Wine,” Ann notes that the song was “written to be listened to under the influence of alcoholic beverages” but quickly realizes that the house wasn’t a drinking crowd!  The fades, wipes and dissolves on the video are very much of their time, but the footage is clean.

The 8 x 8” embossed, die-cut outer box includes a booklet with a short introduction from Charles R. Cross and an even shorter one from Ann and Nancy Wilson.  But the Wilsons make up for it with their revealing and copious track-by-track liner notes.  These add up to a mini-autobiography.  The discs are tightly housed in slots in a large four-panel digipak.  Joe Palmaccio has remastered each track, and though sound quality is variable based on the source of the recording, it’s generally strong throughout.

It’s ironic that the box’s title Strange Euphoria comes from a rather silly and cacophonic disco “comedy collage” included here.  But Ann and Nancy Wilson have never been willing to box themselves into one genre.  Strange Euphoria showcases the Wilson sisters’ songs in every possible setting: studio, live, demo.  Combine this box with Legacy’s Essential Heart 3.0 and you’ll have a comprehensive collection of hits, odds and sods that can’t be beaten.  As a crazy-quilt life story of a legendary band, the emphasis is on the euphoria.

Strange Euphoria is available everywhere.  Orders at Amazon.com include a bonus disc, Heart Zeppish, of five cover versions paying homage to a major influence: Led Zeppelin!  This exclusive edition is pictured, above.

Written by Joe Marchese

June 6, 2012 at 13:57

Posted in Box Sets, Compilations, Heart, News, Reissues, Reviews

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5 Responses

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  1. Beware – Amazon (for some stupid reason) is selling both the regular version of this box set AND their exclusive version with the bonus CD !! Back when I placed my pre-order, they only listed one version and I assumed this was the exclusive edition — BIG mistake !! It wasn’t !! Thank God I didn’t open the set that I got – which was the regular version. I just ordered the exclusive set and am sending this one back….

    Rich

    June 6, 2012 at 20:20

  2. Nancy lead vocals aren’t all that rare…I’m pretty sure she had at least 2-3 per album for the majority of Heart’s run.

  3. This set is great. It really showcases the beauty of the Wilson sisters’ songwriting&playing, with kaleidoscopic reminiscences of Led Zeppelin, Beatles, Joni Mitchell, CS&N that continue to crop up… I even hear some Richard&Linda Thompson here and there (i.e. “Treat me well”)… and still, the whole combination sounds like no other…

    There’s a curious mistake about this set, for some unknown reasons Desire Walks On is released in its known studio version instead of the demo listed on the tracklist and in the track-by-track notes.

    The band have already aknowledged the mistake and the demo is up for download through their site http://www.heart-music.com/

    Andrea

    June 22, 2012 at 09:45

  4. Oops, “Treat me well” (from “Little Queen”) is not in the set… but it should have been included… possibly the major omission, together with “Mistral Wind”… but you can’t have everything, can you?

    Andrea

    June 22, 2012 at 09:57

  5. It loks like the Amazon.exclusive version is already sold out… or at least, it’s not currently available through the site…

    Andrea

    July 1, 2012 at 09:05


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