For the kids of my generation, Heart was just another source of power ballads — sort of a slightly more hairsprayed and corseted version of Starship or Chicago — and when their jig was up, right around the time 1994’s Desire Walks On came out, it was sort of sad (fewer corsets always are) but also something of a relief (who needs to hear “All I Wanna Do Is Make Love to You” again? Ever?)
The truth of the matter, though, is that Heart was around long before “These Dreams” lit up the request lines; they were, in fact, one of the more entertaining (and groundbreaking) AOR acts of the ’70s. The Runaways received the biopic treatment this year, and they surely deserved it — but if the Runaways broke down the door for women with overdriven amps, Heart took that pungent, unstable fusion of rock & roll plus T&A and turned it into a reliable formula for minting platinum records. Between 1976 and 1980, the band sold more than seven million albums in the U.S. alone, and racked up eight Top 40 singles, including the FM classics “Crazy on You,” “Barracuda,” and “Magic Man.”
Heart’s commercial fortunes took a stumble in the early ’80s, but even during those years of high member turnover and low sales, the band never released anything as crappy as Chicago XIV or Starship’s Nuclear Furniture — and when Ann and Nancy Wilson decided to reinvent Heart as a pop radio hit factory for 1985’s Heart, they remembered to throw in a handful of old-school rockers (like “If Looks Could Kill”) alongside future adult contemporary standards like “What About Love,” “Never,” and “Nothin’ at All.” More importantly, even as they bought hits from outside songwriters like Diane Warren and Kelly & Steinberg, they never stopped writing solid material of their own — something many of their peers forgot.
Nothing lasts forever, though, and by the time Side Two of 1990’s Brigade rolled around, you could kind of tell Ann and Nancy were running out of steam as far as the Heart brand was concerned. They spent the early ’90s dabbling with a side group, the Lovemongers, and closed out the decade on extended hiatus. For a time, Ann even toured without Nancy.
The lure of the nostalgia circuit can be powerful, though, and in 2002, the Wilson sisters returned with a new version of Heart; two years later, they released their twelfth studio album, Jupiter’s Darling. No longer concerned with hits, they made a return of sorts to their old sound, offering a decent-sized chunk of acoustic-based rock & roll nostalgia for the older set. It wasn’t a patch on their older stuff, but it was pleasant, and Diane Warren was nowhere to be found.
Of course, like a lot of would-be comebacks from rock warhorses, Jupiter’s Darling didn’t have much of an audience waiting for it. Plenty of people might be willing to pay a few bucks to see Heart drag out their greatest hits on tour, but there aren’t many left who care about what the band is recording now — which Heart should understand, actually, because their latest album, Red Velvet Car, gives the impression that the band doesn’t care much either.
A collection of solid riffs in search of a few good songs, Red Velvet Car is a miserable 10-song paradox: It presents the Wilsons at their bluesiest and most appealingly stripped-down, but it also contains some of their least interesting material. For the most part, these are sketches instead of songs — the sort of stuff you’d expect from a band that had six months instead of six years to work on an album.
It starts promisingly, with the slinky groove and rattling acoustic guitars of opening track “There You Go,” but despite some fine, bluesy grit, the song doesn’t really go anywhere melodically, and that’s a theme that quickly repeats itself. The second track, “WTF,” boasts a thundering rhythm track, crunchy guitars, and a nice swerving riff in the breakdown, but the melody is a mess; there’s nothing here you’ll remember later. Ditto for “Wheels,” which has plenty of defiant attitude and an appropriately circular riff powering the melody, but never feels like it gets out of (ahem) first gear, and “Death Valley,” a grinding mess that reaffirms the fact that you should never trust a song that begins with the line “I looked outside my window.” (And they’re all better than “Safronia’s Mark,” whose notebook-margin mysticism begs for a flute solo and/or a vocal cameo from Stevie Nicks.)
If the record has a real bright spot, it’s “Hey You,” a pretty, if slight, acoustic stroller that features a warm lead vocal from Nancy and the only sing-along hook you’ll hear on the album. It’s the kind of song that Top 40-chasing rock bands used to tuck in at the end of an album to prove they could still hack it without all that ’80s production — but here, it’s the fifth track, and instead of ending the record with a nice palate cleanser, it serves as a too-brief interlude and a bittersweet reminder of what used to make Heart special. It’s built from quality parts, but — to end on a gag as uninspired as the album — this Red Velvet Car isn’t even worth stealing.