Formed in 2003, NYC rockists The Unsacred Hearts rose from the wreckage of teenage dreams, abandoned garages and naive knockoffs to make a visceral, poetic, original noise. While the band made their bones on ultra-distilled rock and roll, weird chords and wild live sets, they always led with the heart. Loud and fast, yes, but the sonic boom was just the straightest line to the truth. Now, with the release of their strangely beautiful second record called The Honor Bar, the Hearts move a bit further down that line.
Rhythmic, romantic, poetic, and still peculiar, The Honor Bar evokes the city of New York itself or, rather, the city resounds in The Honor Bar. The maelstrom and beauty of the city comes across in the sparse, unerring beats, the stark instrumental phrases, the myriad voices in whispers and shouts. Webs of sounds, words and images -- all traffic on the Bowery and midtown sky scrapers -- juxtapose with the sweet intimacy of the fire escape and 2AM walks down solitary side-streets. The constant voice is that of Joe Willie, more poet than singer, with a voice that only implies melody, and words, though littered with the everyday, reach for the grand themes of commitment, friendship, loss and love.
The Honor Bar is certainly not for everyone and neither are The Unsacred Hearts. When they formed, their only goal was to make rock n roll. They did not ask, what is cool, what do people want to hear, or what should we wear. The only question was, how do we keep playing rock n roll? And, over the years, they kept asking that question with each new song, each live set bringing a response. When they last asked, the answer was The Honor Bar.
The Honor Bar is currently available as a CD in a hand silk-screened eco-wallet or a cassette. Lobby us for a vinyl pressing. Digitally you can get it on Bandcamp (pay what you want), iTunes, Amazon, or your favorite digital retailer.
"There are nights in your life, they usually happen in your mid to late 20s, that define you as an adult. There is a clarity to these nights, years later you can still smell the smells, hear the voices, feel the chill in the air, remember the colors in the sky as you and that special someone are greeted by the morning sun. Some how you hold on to the details despite being drunk since 10pm, everyone gets a handful of these nights and they come to be the nights that tell your story, they are the foundation of what your life becomes.
With The Honor Bar, The Unsacred Hearts have absolutely captured the essence of this. They transport you to the very core of it. The wonder and sheer joy that comes from even the most dire and unhinged moments. The heartbreak and sadness is equally as important as the unbridled euphoria that only this time can bring. The Unsacred Hearts embody it on The Honor Bar.
Front man Joe Willie channels a mix of Tom Waits, Lou Reed and Bob Dylan with his sing songy spoken word inner city griot style. Sonically it is a mix of Waiting on a Friend era Rolling Stones and Cypress Ave Van Morrison. The sound is ambitious and smells of stale booze and old cigarettes. It is grand in its scope and gorgeous in its simplicity.
Take some time and revel in the sound of hope, fear, joy, confusion, booze soaked drama and drug addled joy. The Honor Bar is the formative years of your life wrapped in a smoky poetic bow, a snap shot of everything you hoped you would be and were innocent enough to think would be what you wanted."
-TIM BAKER, Syffal
"Issued almost two years ago on Novem ber 30th 2009, AEM029 intro duced The Unsa cred Hearts as a band in the midst of a sea change, caught between their early roots as a fire brand post-punk out fit from Blue Point Long Island and an uncer tain future as a group of poet i cally inclined and musi cally intel li gent adults with jobs, law degrees, wives, and chil dren. For the last five years The Unsa cred Hearts have been work ing towards their lat est album, fix ing on it like a dis tant star that’s always vis i ble but just barely out of reach. Instru men tal ver sions of the songs have been float ing around for years, serv ing as the sound track to band mem bers’ lives, both inform ing and being informed by this great tran si tion. Drum mer Travis Har ri son even walked down the aisle to an early ver sion of B-Side “Flesh and Bone”. Work ing off and on at Seri ous Business Music with a coterie of friends, the album began to take shape, and at last The Unsa cred Hearts com pleted and released The Honor Bar. We’re thrilled to fol low up on our orig i nal 7-inch with two tracks from this release, which is avail able now on CD and Cas sette from Seri ous Busi ness Records.
I spoke with drum mer, pro ducer, and engi neer Travis Har ri son about the new record and the impe tus behind The Unsa cred Hearts’ change in musi cal direc tion. It was, he explained, an attempt to make music that was more acces si ble, and that he could put on at home with out being asked to turn it down or off. The band sim ply wanted to make the kind of music that they them selves wished to lis ten to. After years of punk-inspired invec tive, The Hearts wanted to recast them selves in a mold that spoke more directly to their cur rent sit u a tion. When their self-titled debut was released in 2004 they didn’t have fam i lies or careers. There’s a rea son that the music-to-beverage-matching web site drinkify.org lists “The Unsa cred Hearts” recipe as 4 oz. Mar i juana, 4 oz. Gin ger Ale, and 1 oz. Macallan Scotch. They were once young dudes mak ing loud music. Now they’re medium-young dudes mak ing lis ten able music. It’s a change that makes most musi cians uncom fort able, like they’re giv ing up some essen tial part of their being by sac ri fic ing the atti tudes they devel oped as teenagers. But what The Unsa cred Hearts under stand is that their energy and enthu si asm isn’t gone, but rather rechan neled into cre at ing a lush musical ter ri tory they were once too drunk or near sighted to fully ren der. Singer and lyri cist Joe Willie sums this up won der fully, “While we made our bones on ultra-distilled rock and roll, weird chords and wild live sets, we always led with the heart. Loud and fast, yes, but the sonic boom was just the straight est line to the truth.”
If “the truth” is some thing that can be dis tilled into a song (and I believe it is), then Joe Willie is a kind of musi cal ora cle. In his ear lier days he came across as a fren zied beat poet front man, as if some one had given Jim Mor ri son the stage at an open mic and handed him an eight ball of cocaine. On The Unsa cred Hearts’ lat est mate r ial he comes off as sage-like, split some where between Tom Waits, Lou Reed, and Gil Scott-Heron. The acoustic landscape of this album is less jagged than in past attempts, and Joe Willie’s spo ken vocals float atop a more serene tra jec tory, allow ing for greater focus on a blended aes thetic and lyri cal turns of phrase. In his sum mary of the album, which is itself a mas ter ful bit of prose, he turns back to New York as a cycli cal influ ence on The Honor Bar. He explains, “The Honor Bar evokes the city of New York itself or, rather, the city resounds in The Honor Bar. The mael strom and beauty of the city comes across in the sparse, unerr ing beats, the stark instru men tal phrases, the myr iad voices in whis pers and shouts. Webs of sounds, words and images — all traf fic on the Bow ery and midtown sky scrap ers — jux ta pose with the sweet inti macy of the fire escape and 2AM walks down soli tary side-streets.” It’s a sound track not for New York City, but an abstrac tion of New York City, for those pre cious few moments when you lose your self com pletely in the web of mono lithic archi tec ture and com pact humanity.
A-Side and title track “The Honor Bar” fades in to a tum ble of per cus sive thun der and giv ing way to hand drum per cus sion and a dri ving fig ure on acoustic gui tar set to the walk ing pace of your aver age long-legged New Yorker. The instru men ta tion is lush, with glock en spiel, bass, piano, accor dion, elec tric gui tar, and a com pressed drum set added to the mix at the cho rus. There’s an elec tronic vibe to this track that’s unheard on pre vi ous recordings–the tin kered drum sound and dis torted melodic fig ure on the outro all hint at an extended sonic palette for The Unsacred Hearts. It all serves as a back drop for Joe Willie’s bari tone mus ings, which are heard with a new depth and res o nance thanks to the rel a tive tran quil ity of the musi cal accom pa ni ment. This was the last song com pleted for The Honor Bar, and best encap su lates the atti tudes dri ving the band’s project in self-reinvention. This is music I could read to, music I could work to, music I could put on and ignore, but what makes it spe cial is that I wouldn’t actu ally want to do any of those things. Some thing about it con tin ues to com mand lis ten ers’ full atten tion, and it does so through a great depth of musi cal vision rather than pure vol ume. This more than any thing is a sign that The Unsa cred Hearts aren’t just grow ing up and con tin u ing to make records–they’re maturing.
B-Side “Flesh & Bone” is a lyri cal pas tiche of musi cal and lit er ary ref er ences. Some are undoubt edly inten tional and some maybe inci den tal, but none come off as heavy-handed. Rather, they suc ceed in evok ing the spirit and ambiance of entire songs and impart ing some part of their essence and mean ing on “Flesh & Bone”. The com plete lyrics are below, with footnotes:
Pic ture me, pic ture you, in a pic ture book(1) we’re pag ing through
Pic ture me with the slings and the arrows(2), pic ture me when the dirt road nar rows
On a hill, far from home, straits of Gibral tar, streets of Rome(3)
Mis sis sippi River rolling slow, lost in the rain, Juarez, Mex ico(4)
When you’re tired, when you’re on your own
I’ll be there, flesh and bone
I miss you, baby, when the river bends(5), I miss you, baby, when the dirt road ends
Pic ture me, pic ture you
Pic ture me, per chance to dream(6), pic ture you, beside the stream
When you’re weary, when you’re on your own
I’ll be there, flesh and bone
1.) The Kinks — Pic ture Book: “Pic ture book, pic tures of your mama, taken by your papa a long time ago. // Pic ture book, of peo ple with each other, to prove they love each other a long time ago.”
2.) Shake speare — Ham let: “To be, or not to be, that is the ques tion: // Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer // The slings and arrows of out ra geous for tune, // Or to take arms against a sea of trou bles, // And by opposing end them?”
3.) Bob Dylan — When I Paint My Mas ter piece: “Oh, the streets of Rome are filled with rub ble / Ancient footprints are every where / You can almost think that you’re seein’ dou ble / On a cold, dark night on the Span ish Stairs”
4.) Bob Dylan — Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues: “When you’re lost in the rain in Juarez // And it’s East er time too // And your grav ity fails // And neg a tiv ity don’t pull you through // Don’t put on any airs // When you’re down on Rue Morgue Avenue // They got some hun gry women there // And they really make a mess outta you”
5.) The Coun try Gen tle men — Down Where: “Down where the river bends // With God’s help we’ll meet again // Under the same old sycamore tree // Proud of each other in the land of the free // I’ll go down to the ocean blue // Just as close as I can to you // This old ocean might keep us apart // But it won’t keep you dear from out of my heart”
6.) Shake speare — Ham let: “To die, to sleep // To sleep—perchance to dream. Ay, there’s the rub! // For in that sleep of death what dreams may come, // When we have shuf fled off this mor tal coil, // Must give us pause—there’s the respect // That makes calamity of so long life.”
These ref er ences weave an intri cate sub text to the song, evok ing numer ous depic tions of death and forc ing us to con sider the nature of human mem o ries and inter ac tions. The Pic ture Book ref er ence sug gests that we doc u ment our own lives only to con vince our selves that we’ve had sub stan tial expe ri ences once we can no longer feel them so acutely. And yet, though mem o ries fade, some expe ri ences per sist across time, and there’s an ele ment of humanity’s pres ence that we can seem ingly access through local ity or state of mind, as indi cated by the ref er ence to When I Paint My Mas ter piece. But through all this, through hard ships and strug gle, what should be our rela tionship with death? Is it an escape or a demise? Joe Willie engages this con ver sa tion with a text of his own, profoundly con tem plat ing man’s posi tion on this earth and our rela tion ship to a hazy past and a pre car i ous future. This inter ac tion is real ized musi cally as an acoustic bal lad, giv ing way to vocal coun ter point between Joe Willie and guest vocal ist Jay may, in an exchange that grap ples with the eter nal nature of true love, which is wholly supported by Willie’s lyrics and simul ta ne ously prob lema tized by the var i ous ref er ences sprin kled through out the song. Once fully teased out, it’s a bril liant polemic that’s typ i cal of Joe Willie’s remark able insight as a lyricist.
To round out his descrip tion of The Honor Bar, Joe Willie writes, “The Honor Bar is cer tainly not for every one and nei ther are The Unsa cred Hearts. When we formed, our only goal was to make rock n roll. We did not ask, what is cool, what do peo ple want to hear, or what should we wear. The only ques tion was, how do we keep play ing rock n roll? And, over the years, we kept ask ing that ques tion with each new song, each live set bring ing a response. When we last asked, the answer was The Honor Bar.” I couldn’t have said it bet ter myself."
-Ben Heller. The Ampeater Review
R.I.Y.L.: Richard Hell, Silver Jews, Bob Dylan, Mitch Ryder, Tom Waits, Bruce Springsteen, Bill Callahan, Bonnie "Prince" Billy, Lou Reed, Mos Def, Rolling Stones, Keith Richards, Guided By Voices, Robert Pollard, Patti Smith, George Harrison, Ramones
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