What happens when you throw together veterans of The Cars, Blondie, The Romantics, and The Chesterfield Kings with a splash of The Faces added for good measure? You get The Empty Hearts.
The Empty Hearts consist of Elliot Easton of The Cars on lead guitar, Blondie’s Clem Burke on drums, Wally Palmar from The Romantics on vocals, harmonica, and guitar, and bassist Andy Babiuk from The Chesterfield Kings. In a recent interview, Babiuk told me the idea began with his desire to move on from the Kings, as he felt 30 years of that band was enough. He wanted to work with kindred spirits he’d crossed paths with over the years, especially players who’d all said, “We gotta do something together sometime.” Babiuk hoped the time had come and contacted Palmar, who was about to go on tour with Ringo Starr at the time. After Palmar’s return, the pair hooked up with Burke and Easton and started coordinating schedules.
Babiuk said the four lived in various cities and needed to find a window of time in which to first jam and then record. The impetus was mainly to just have fun, whether or not that went any further. The still nameless group knocked out four or five songs in very short order, all of the players contributing collaboratively to the songwriting credits. Then they blasted through the full album in five days at Fab Gear Studios in Rochester, NY. Feeling some songs could use some keyboard parts, they recruited The Faces’ Ian McLagan to add his special touch on electric piano, Hammond organ, and Wurlitzer.
Ironically, early in the songwriting process, the band came up with “Fill an Empty Heart,” which sounded like a mid-’70s radio-friendly single. But the song title had nothing to do with the band name. That came from label owner Little Steven (Steven Van Zandt), who kept asking what the group called itself. When he got no reply, he emailed Babiuk and said, “You guys are the Empty Hearts,” a choice he took from a list he had of unused band names. At that point, Van Zandt hadn’t yet heard the song. Babiuk copied the text to the other guys and said, “Any of you want to argue with Silvio Dante?” (The reference was, of course, to Van Zandt’s gangster role on The Sopranos.)
While Babiuk dislikes the term “garage rock,” saying it doesn’t really mean anything and that the group feels they’re just rock and rollers, the label really fits The Empty Hearts just as it did Babiuk’s first band. In fact, comparing the Hearts to all the bands from which these players sprang, they most closely evoke the memory of the Kings. For example, you can hear that old hard-charging energy in the opener, “90 Miles an Hour Down a Dead End Street” and “Perfect World,” which shares much with all the garage rock one-hit wonders of the ’60s like The Standells, Seeds, and Blues Magoos.
But, as Babiuk notes, you can’t call The Kinks and The Who one-hit wonders, and their British Invasion-thrashing influence can’t be missed on “Soul Deep.” You can hear a bit of The Stones’ style of country on “I Found You Again,” with pedal steel guitar as well as keyboard support from McLagan. Speaking of McLagan, “Drop Me Off at Home” owes something to the strutting Faces but much more the Keith Richards riffs of the Stones.
I must concur with the reviewer at AllMusic.com who says the themes of The Empty Hearts include “Guys Night Out, Good Times, Cool & Cocky,” and “Night Driving.” The Empty Hearts isn’t cutting-edge, innovative rock, but it wasn’t intended to be anything more than four “rock and roll lifers” having a good time together. Of course, if old time “garage rock” and the rawer tones of the British Invasion flick your Bic (remember that expression?), The Empty Hearts will get your party going. One good thing about such bands keeping that breed of music alive is that, for many a young listener who missed the scene the first, second, or even third time around, The Empty Hearts should sound fresh and far more melodic than many a current ensemble. With any luck, garage rock will never die.
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