genre-defying Heart Pills go West in second album
BANGBANGBANGBANGBANG-BANG! This isn’t a common thing to see amid the standard “thank yous” and credits listed on the inside cover of a CD, but it’s the first word that jumps out of the physical packaging of the second full-length album by genre-defying rockers The Heart Pills. It’s also a pretty good representation of the nine raucous and uniquely entertaining tracks that make up Gunfighter.
Matt Haapala’s drums and Silas Thompson’s bass drive the songs, Sarah Bodeau’s keyboard lines weave in and out expertly, and Josh Ingersoll yelps, squawks, and mumbles through all of it.It can be difficult to talk about any band’s second album without comparing it to its first, no matter how different or similar the two might be. The Heart Pills’ debut, To Paul, From Dad 1951, was filled with lead singer and songwriter Josh Ingersoll’s bizarrely charming characters and their odd stories set to sing-along choruses. Gunfighter introduces a new setting – the Wild West – and characters, but the band behind the music is still recognizable. Matt Haapala’s drums and Silas Thompson’s bass drive the songs, Sarah Bodeau’s keyboard lines weave in and out expertly, and Ingersoll yelps, squawks, and mumbles through all of it.
But while To Paul began as a set of songs that Ingersoll had written by himself before the formation of the band, the new album – officially released on Feb. 8 at the House of Rock – was a collaborative process from the beginning. Ingersoll recounted a story about the band sitting in a driveway, taking turns writing rhyming lyrics for the song, “Cabaret Lady,” and eventually ending up with four songs united by some kind of Western theme. “They seemed to tie together, so we just kept going.” The band took two informal trips into the studio with local engineer and producer Jaime Hansen, who encouraged them to experiment with arrangements before booking studio time to officially record the album. Once in studio, the band tracked the album in three days with the added help of Ben Lester (Field Report, Kalispell) on pedal steel and Bodeau’s father, Don, on tuba and euphonium. Bodeau herself played trumpet on a few songs, standing out in particular on the album closer, “Western Song.”
The most impressive thing about the album, though, is that it works on two different levels. On one hand, the songs are thoroughly enjoyable as individual parts, as pieces of music that will be played and rocked to at local shows. The opening track of the album, “Concrete,” is brooding and menacing. “Fiddler Diddler” is about as Heart Pills-y as it gets, from the back and forth boy-girl vocals to the organ part that you could swear you’ve heard before but can’t quite place.
On the other hand, the songs fit together on a larger scale. A character from one song is likely to pop up in another, and there is even a 10-minute radio play (written and performed entirely by Ingersoll) that serves as a lead-in to the final track. This isn’t quite a rock opera, but it’s clear that The Heart Pills made a real effort to create something more than a collection of songs. “We all had a final vision,” Happala said. “If not for the story, then definitely the music.”
This all comes to a head on the aforementioned closing track, simply titled, “Western Song.” (Other songs in The Heart Pills catalog include “Country Song” and “German Song.” Sometimes simplicity is best.) What begins with a young gunfighter asking for a good luck kiss from a local lady ends in a climactic showdown, played out on guitar, organ, bass, and drums. The story then changes perspective and sends the album out with a last lament and stirring trumpet coda.
It’s refreshing to hear an album that doesn’t take itself too seriously – it’s tough to use words like “pappy” and “diddler” and parade around with your nose in the air – but Gunfighter also rewards the listener who wants to dig past the memorable hooks and catchy choruses for something more. In this case, it’s the sprawling, epic story of a band that figures out exactly what it wants to do, and then does it with the precision of one of its gunfighters, readying, aiming, and firing. BANGBANGBANGBANGBANGBANG!
The Heart Pills will release Gunfighter at the House Of Rock, 422 Water St., on Feb. 8 with Meridene and The Traveling Suitcase and the Ughana Rock showcase at Memorial High School on Feb. 28 (all ages).