“I will never break your heart,” Nini Fabi pledges on “Heart”, kicking off a thread of abstract promises that winds its way through all 41 minutes of HAERTS’ self-titled LP. It’s hard to remember a time when beautiful young women weren’t swearing these kinds of oaths through the medium of popular music, and this may be at the heart (no pun intended — well, maybe a little) of what defines the long-awaited debut of this much-hyped band.
Last year’s Hemiplegia EP, the first release by the Brooklyn-based synthpop quartet, was received with a strain of enthusiasm usually reserved for very small, very cute puppies that haven’t chewed their way through any shoe collections yet. Yes, the four-song EP was smooth and buoyant and catchy, and the comparisons to Fleetwood Mac weren’t entirely unfounded. These kids know their way around some ’80s-style synths and drum machines, and Fabi is gifted with a girlish, smoky voice that effortlessly makes a home in the curves of your ear canals. On the strength of that EP and its lead single, “Wings”, Fabi and her bandmates toured with the likes of St. Lucia and Washed Out, and filled coveted slots at South by Southwest and Bonnaroo. After all that buildup, the group’s 10-track debut LP, simply titled HAERTS, has finally arrived.
HAERTS is a frequently catchy mastery of tried-and-true sounds, but ultimately there’s not much that deviates from the sugary, straightforward formula that caused the group to explode in the first place. The synths are consistently cosmic and expansive, becoming repetitive somewhere around the 15-minute mark, and the lyrics have a Mad Libs quality to them: verb (“leave” is a popular choice), feeling (i.e., “pain”), adjective. There’s nothing wrong with doing one thing well, but someone, somewhere needed to take at least one little risk and push for something different. The result would ideally have been a richer and more varied album, allowing the strong tracks to shine through and eliminating the more generic ones (like the plodding “Call My Name”) altogether. Fabi may have some kind of a grasp of the time-honored tropes of female confessional songwriting, but she’s holding onto them entirely too tightly.
“Hemiplegia”, the title track from last year’s EP, is still one of the most powerful songs in the HAERTS arsenal, launching a stadium-ready assault of shimmering electronics and bombastic drumbeats. (The word, in case you were wondering, is a medical term for half-body paralysis.) It’s easy to see how, in a live setting, the vague lyrics would be indiscernible anyway, and all that would matter would be the song’s ability to induce euphoria. Inside a pair of headphones, however, the stakes don’t feel particularly high; nothing becomes too concrete or personal. The one track that approaches exception is the particularly Fleetwood Mac-esque “No One Needs to Know”, which finds Fabi struggling with an inattentive lover. “You say you want to know me now, but you never tried, never tried,” she sings, leaving you grasping at the details — what’s this dude’s deal? Does he still keep framed photos of his college girlfriend or have an exceptionally dirty bathroom? This is one of those missed “show, don’t tell” opportunities.
One of the strengths of HAERTS’ contemporaries like St. Lucia is that they are able to imbue their tunes with specificity; early 2014’s When the Night brought to mind a pastel, Miami Vice aesthetic, relying on saxophones and other recognizable, evocative instruments to add some texture. By the time the final tracks of HAERTS roll around, such as “Lights Out”, a nice enough slow-burner, you find yourself wishing for some reference point or at least a change in the landscape.
This isn’t about whether HAERTS is cohesive (it is) or the work of technically skilled artists (also true). Rather, it’s that the album’s 41 minutes are spent waiting for a moment of connection that never really comes. Who is Fabi, really, and who are her bandmates? What do they love, and what drives them crazy? If they can answer a few more questions like these on their next release, they’ll be well on their way to creating something a little less static and a little more distinctive.
Essential Tracks: “Hemiplegia”, “No One Needs To Know”