Dusting 'Em Off
Revisiting an album, a film, or an event on its anniversary

Dusting ‘Em Off: The Exploding Hearts – Guitar Romantic

on July 02, 2011, 10:00am

With the Rapture being compared to Gang of Four, the Strokes hyped as the return to post-’77 CBGB’s New York, and the ubiquitous Interpol/Joy Division comparison (while ignoring the Chameleons’ influence), by 2003 the music world was deep into what many (myself included) considered to be a post punk revival. With the spotlight clearly on New York City, not much attention was given when Portland, OR’s The Exploding Hearts released what would be their one and only album, Guitar Romantic, in April of that year.

Often described as a punk band, the easiest way to describe the Exploding Hearts’ sound is power pop – pure, unabashed pop rock & roll, with catchy hooks and instantly memorable melodies. Power pop as a genre began to peak around the same time that punk broke, and as a result got swept up in the momentum. Power pop bands like the Only Ones, the Records, 20/20, the Undertones and the Rubinoos approached their art with a punk attitude; they just chose to express it with more melody and less aggression. The Exploding Hearts manage to capture that same aesthetic and sentimentality with their music.

Shortly after forming in 2001, the Exploding Hearts found themselves in the forefront of a mini (and short lived) power pop revival in the Pacific Northwest. However, despite fronting any scene, the Exploding Hearts were not mere revivalists nor was their sound a pale, blanch derivative of someone else. The look of the band and their singles all reached back to the late ’70s style, but none of it was campy or seeking retro status. They were sincere and true to their art, unfailingly adhering to a distinct aesthetic. Label head Fred Landeen said, “The boys had a great style. Nobody was rocking pink and yellow together with white denim.” With its bright pink and yellow cover featuring a grainy image of the band shamelessly posing, Guitar Romantic could easily be mistaken as a vintage release, from the heyday of the genre. Upon listening to it, it most certainly could be.

As the band readied to record they lost keyboardist Louie Bankston and reinstated their original bass player, Matt Fitzgerald. In the spring of 2002, vocalist Adam Cox, bassist Matt Fitzgerald, drummer Jeremy Gage, and guitarist Terry Six entered Studio 13 in the basement of a house in Southwest Portland along with their friend and producer Pat Kearns and together recorded the Exploding Hearts’ debut album, Guitar Romantic.

 

Opening track “Modern Kicks” might immediately bring to mind John Peel’s favorite pop song, the Undertones “Teenage Kicks”. Beyond the titular connection, both songs are driven by a gritty guitar line, however, where the Undertones open their number with percussion, the Exploding Hearts blaze through the gates with five seconds (all in the left channel) of Terry Six knocking on your door with his riff prior to the band knocking the door in. When Cox’ vocals enter – a sort of nasally pseudo-British sound, as if Johnny Lydon’s and 20/20’s Steve Allen’s voices merged – you swear you entered a time warp.

Switching channels for the next intro, Six’ strumming intro to “I’m a Pretender” brings to mind a more playful kind of rock and roll.  Written by former member Bankston prior to joining the band, the title reaches back to rock’s early days while the song’s melody, like the Ramones, springs from 60s pop.

Practically every song on this album wears a different influence on its sleeve. “Thorns and Roses” and “You’re Black and Blue” are firmly rooted in power pop, with the latter easily fitting in with the Yellow Pills collection. “Rumours in Town” and “Boulevard Trash” scream of Dwight Twilley and Nick Lowe.  The “ballad” of the album is “Jailbird”, whose construction could easily have been a re-imagined rockin’ country ballad from the ‘50s, while the album closer, “Still Crazy” rocks out like an outtake from Suede’s debut (1993!) until the vocals kick in, grounding us firmly in the land of the sweet and sour explosive pop.

With all these songs fighting for top honors, two others stand out as my personal favorites. “Sleeping Aides and Razorblades” arrives in the middle of the album. From the very first time I ever heard this song I fell in love with its instantly catchy melody. Lyrically, the song tells an old story about a boy who thought he was over a girl until he hears a song on the radio. Bringing back all the memories, Cox tries to convince both himself and the girl that he’s moved on, but somehow, you just know that he hasn’t. On a tangent, if there was ever a movie made about the Exploding Hearts, this song would be perfect as the film ended and the credits began to scroll.

Along with “Sleeping Aides and Razorblades”, the other stand out is “Throwaway Style”. The gentle inclusion of a short piano riff that peeks out from under the blankets every little bit provides a little hope in an otherwise sad tale of a guy who is continuously mistreated at the hands of a girl. Copping the same Motown beat that the Strokes used with “Last Night”, if there was ever a connection between the post-punk revival bands of New York and the Exploding Hearts, it would be with this track.

Upon the release of Guitar Romantic, the album was immediately called a power pop classic.  Critics all over the west coast hailed the band and fans flocked to see them play.  As the band toured in support of Guitar Romantic, Lookout! Records began to show interest in them.  After playing a couple of gigs in San Francisco, the band began the long drive back up Interstate 5 to Portland.  On the morning of July 20, 2003, with just over an hour left in their trip, the band’s van flipped over north of Eugene, OR after Fitzgerald, who had been driving, fell asleep.  Cox and Gage were thrown from the vehicle and died at the scene.  Fitzgerald died later at the hospital.  The band’s guitarist, Terry Six, and their manager were the only survivors.

Deciding not to carry on the band’s name, Terry Six ended the Exploding Hearts leaving behind a collection of singles and one incredible album.  A few years after the end of the Exploding Hearts, Dirtnap records released Shattered, a collection of outtakes and singles from before and during the Guitar Romantic sessions.

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