What more could any Heart lover ask for? A luscious box set that includes three generous CDs, a bonus disc, a live DVD, and a full-size paperback book of photos and memories?
Well, don’t throw out your favorite previous albums like Dreamboat Annie, Little Queen, or any greatest hits package you might have just yet. While Strange Euphoria is billed as the “definitive” collection, you’re not going to hear the more familiar versions of “Magic Man,” “Crazy on You,” or “Heartless.” By design, the emphasis is on rarities, demo versions of Heart’s biggest hits, live performances, and never before released tracks. But this isn’t to say the set is for Heart completists only. Rather, it’s for anyone who enjoys the gentler side of pop.
Did he just say gentle? Yes. For those who remember Ann and Nancy Wilson best for being queens of ‘70s arena rock with iconic guitar leads and hooks, the songs here are reminders of the full range of the Wilson sisters’ canon. Again, this is by design with material rarely, if ever, given any airplay.
The 17 tracks on disc one are a case in point. It opens with “Through Eyes and Glass” by Ann Wilson & The Daybreaks, followed by an acoustic demo of “Magic Man.” Then, the set features folk rock songs like ”Dreamboat Annie,” “Love Alive,” and “Sylvan Song.” Each has more in common with Joni Mitchell and Janis Ian than they do the harder sounds of other lady pioneers like Fanny, Suzi Quatro, or Pat Benatar. If you want out-and-out rock, that comes in a live version of “Barracuda” from a BBC Radio Concert. For half the disc, the emphasis on demos shows a band finding its way with then-new material in process. Occasionally a forgotten nugget pops out that shows the full potential of Heart. For example, “Dream of the Archer” really brings the possibilities together with crystalline vocals, superb guitar work, and almost Celtic lyrics matched with a haunting musical setting.
Arguably, we don’t hear Heart kick out the hard-edged jams until disc two’s “Even It Up” from 1980 and “City’s Burning” from 1982. Then, in short order, we’re listening to a completely different Heart. The demo version of “Lucky Day,” for example, is a radio-friendly pop single not exactly in the “Barracuda” mold. From that point forward, the second disc showcases a group employing far more mainstream, commercial settings, including the live 1995 “Never” (with John Paul Jones), “These Dreams,” and “Nobody Home.” For the “Unconditional Love” demo, the ladies become soul sisters. By “Desire Walks On” (“Beach demo” version), they’ve taken on electronic drums and sound very contemporary indeed. I confess, the ’80s weren’t my favorite Heart era.
However, for this reviewer, CD three contains the bulk of the back-to-back nuggets. Throughout this series, both Wilsons are at the top of their game. Both had become accomplished and seasoned writers and performers as demonstrated in their “comeback” albums, Jupiter’s Darling (2004) and Red Velvet Car (2010). For example, choice offerings from The Lovemongers, a Heart side-project with Sue Ennis and Frank Cox, include “Friend Meets Friend,” the scorching, bluesy “Kiss” and the live performance piece, “Sand.” Other very listenable live tracks are Nancy Wilson’s acoustic “Everything” and “She Still Believes.” I fell in love with the unreleased demo for “Any Woman’s Blues” cut with the Seattle Blues Revue Horns. Heart gets back to Dreamboat Annie basics in “Fallen Ones” before the lovely, orchestrated ballads “Enough” and “Lost Angel” which show how poetic the sister’s songwriting skills had become.
Of course, not everything on disc three is wonderful. Echoing the dance numbers on disc two, a disco rhythm drives “Strange Euphoria” which would be, ah, strange by anyone. “Queen City” is simply formulaic. But, hey, 51 songs can’t all be classics. But wait, there’s more!
For many Heart lovers, the crown jewels would be the 10 songs performed live around February or March 1976 on the KWSU “The Second Ending.” The DVD of this show is a bit of a full-circle experience. We see the much younger Wilsons in an intimate setting, introducing themselves and songs like “Magic Man” and “Crazy on You.” It’s also a bit of a time capsule of the era. Songs like “Sing Child” are a bit Tull, a bit Zeppelin, a bit synth-pop. Remember drum solos? Most importantly, it shows a band poised for the big time to come and the raw talent the band began with. Was it really that long ago? But that’s not all either! Tucked under the main packaging is a bonus disc (exclusive to the Amazon.com edition) of throwaway studio demos and exquisite live Led Zeppelin covers.
The Wilsons should feel proud for what Strange Euphoria reveals about their evolution. Listeners should feel grateful Heart really laid themselves bare with so much archival material that might not easily fit in any other package. If you only want the hits, there are other collections to fit that need. This set reintroduces us to a band we didn’t know as well as we thought. Forty years worth of songs we didn’t know were in the vaults takes listeners on a trip that’s only partly nostalgic but mostly an experience with, as the Wilsons call them, “deep cuts.”