HAERTS – yeah, I’m not big on the deliberately-misspelled band names trend either – put out a strong EP late last year as a teaser for their full-length debut; “All the Days” made my top 100 songs of 2013, “Wings” would have made my top songs of 2012 had I heard it when it was released, and I liked their overall sound and lead singer Nini Fabi’s powerful, slightly smoky voice. Their self-titled debut album came out last Tuesday, including three of the four songs from last year’s EP along with six new tracks that follow the same general aesthetic – indie-pop, a little new wavish but never retro, all buttressed by Fabi’s tremendous vocals.
Produced by Jean-Philip Grobler, who records his own music under the moniker St. Lucia, Haerts isn’t as bright as his own work but features the same kind of lush, layered sounds that made his album When the Night (which made my top albums of 2013 list) so compelling. Haerts’ songs work best when Fabi is at the front, as on lead single “Giving Up,” where she begins singing just over a repeating keyboard line, after which her vocals are doubled before we get the remainder of the band involved. Like “Wings” and “All the Days,” there’s a relentlessness in the backing key and guitar lines, like a haertbeat beneath the voice that gives the album’s best songs their energy.
That’s lacking when the pace slows, as on “Call My Name,” the intro to which is way too similar to Chris Deburgh’s “The Lady in Red” (good luck unhearing that now); Fabi gets to belt it out during the chorus, but by that point I’d lost some interest, and the formula doesn’t work any better on “Lights Out,” which sounds a bit like a mediocre ’80s ballad and doesn’t let Fabi show off at all. Haerts sound best when they hit the gas from the first measure and leave the cruise control on for the whole four minutes – even deep tracks like “Be the One” (with the perhaps unintentional double entendre “can you show it/when you go down?” in the bridge) and opener “Heart” cast a spell with solid hooks and Fabi’s performance. I understand the desire to vary their sound and tempo across the 40 minutes of a full album, but their style doesn’t work as well at ballad speed.
Those songs from last year’s Hemiplegia EP are the strongest, though – the two I mentioned above plus the title track – with mesmerizing vocals and richly textured synth-bass-drum combinations that grow as each track progresses. “Hemiplegia” might be the unlikeliest title for a pure pop song, but it’s a remarkably crafted track that recalls the best moments from When the Night as it adds layers (like the guitar riff at 2:20) to increase its complexity without losing its hookiness. “Wings” is the only track on the album that feels driven by percussion, but the strength of the beat contrasts beautifully with the flow of Fabi’s vocals, but when everything drops out behind her at the halfway point, she hits this series of notes that mark the highest point of the entire album. There’s enough consistency on this album to make it well worth the purchase, as long as you didn’t buy the EP last year; it’s among the year’s best albums, on the strength of those three songs and one of the best new voices in alternative music.