Back in 2004, I was quite excited by the idea of Heart returning. The release of that year’s ‘Jupiter’s Darling’ marked the first new material released under the Heart name for nearly a decade. Ann and Nancy Wilson worked with regular collaborator Sue Ennis in the interim under the name The Lovemongers, concentrating on folky and pop-rock styles, but sadly, their one proper album release did little for me despite having been a fan of the Wilsons for many years. Heart’s ‘Jupiter’s Darling’ was a return to the band’s heavy Led Zeppelin influenced sound from the 70s, but tweaked slightly for the 90s. While it was great to have Heart back (even if in name only), the album contained little in the way of memorable material (it flopped, supposedly only shifting 100,000 copies). The supporting tour – which saw the band returning to the UK after many years without a visit – was absolutely cracking though, so that reunion wasn’t without merit. Heart continued to play sporadic live shows after that, but Nancy’s main focus became scoring her husband Cameron Crowe’s movies, while in 2007 Ann recorded her first full solo album.
Six years after ‘Jupiter’s Darling’, ‘Red Velvet Car’ continues to plough Heart’s seventies rock roots. Those looking for the eighties style power ballads which made Heart megastars outside of the US in the 80s will undoubtedly be disappointed, since bluesy Zeppelin-isms are the main order of the day here. Sadly, although the style is in keeping with Heart’s earliest work, a good chunk of the material lacks the spark and immediacy of Heart’s best 70s outing. The arrangements feel somewhat leaden in places (though nowhere near as much as those on ‘Jupiter’s Darling’) and rather more worryingly, Ann Wilson’s once matchless vocal shows signs of wear It’s slightly husky edge is well suited to the bluesier moments of ‘Red Velvet Car’, but her trademark wail appears to struggle on the rockier cuts. For the most part, Ann’s voice just doesn’t stretch beyond what sounds like an untrained mid-range any more…
This is obvious from the single release, ‘WTF’ which appears to be a deliberate attempt to give the album a hard rocker in the style of ‘Barracuda’. While it’s musically okay, Ann’s vocal has been fuzzed up to make it sound grittier (though most likely it’s an attempt to mask her inabilities to hit the huge notes the way she once did). While the main riff shows great promise, there’s no hook to back it up. Similarly, the deliberate driving nature of ‘Wheels’ is empty once you get past a promising heavily percussive rhythm. Also with a percussive nature, the slide guitar blues-rock of ‘There You Go Again’ works better due to a more understated arrangement – making decent use of Ann’s slightly cracked vocal in the process. You’d think that ‘Bootful of Beer’, echoing the bar-room rock of The Quireboys and The Faces would be well suited to Heart’s retro blues-rock shoes, but the end result is painful. Craig Bartock’s twangy guitars and Ben Smith’s simple drum work lay a decent foundation, but the song otherwise feels forced. There’s not even a boogie piano line to help sweep things along. While Heart were always first rate at Led Zeppelin style hard rock, whiskey soaked blues-rock just doesn’t work for them. Maybe this would have worked for Alannah Myles in the 80s or Sass Jordan in the 90s, but for Heart in the 21st Century…nah.
The high points of the album the ones with pastel shades, as Ann’s voice doesn’t take a hammering and the band sound far more natural. Particularly good are the couple of tracks where Nancy takes lead: ‘Hey You’ is an upbeat acoustic number which would have fit snugly on to any of Heart’s 70s masterpieces. The spirit of classic Heart is further strengthened once Ann provides accompaniment on the autoharp. ‘Sunflower’ has a semi-acoustic bluesy swagger, with Nancy’s acoustic work counterbalanced by Craig Bartock’s subtle electric lead. Not as sublime as ‘Hey You’, but another definite reason to check out the album. The gentle acoustic ‘Sand’ echoes ‘Dog and Butterfly’, with a soft summer feeling as Ann’s understated vocal really carries the song. The quiet moments are proof enough that Ann’s voice is still there, but midway as she attempts one of her Robert Plant inspired wails, the cracks appear again. Luckily, she’s backed by Nancy providing a great harmony vocal.
Like Heart’s 70s albums, ‘Red Velvet Car’ isn’t without it’s mandolin moment, as ‘Safronia’s Mark’ has moments which – as is quite often the case – sound like a direct lift from Led Zeppelin’s ‘Battle of Evermore’. While one of the album’s better moments, there’s still no doubt that Heart have done this before…and much better. And that, on the most base level is the album’s greatest fault. Like ‘Jupiter’s Darling’, ‘Red Velvet Car’ really doesn’t represent Heart’s brilliance.
While it was never going to be a release to pull in casual listeners, I have a feeling that lots of long-term fans are likely to also greet this with indifference. There are some good songs here – and even a couple of excellent ones (despite my mixed feelings, it’s certainly better than ‘Jupiter’s Darling’) – but it’s hugely unlikely anyone would choose to listen to this album when there are so many superior albums in Heart’s back catalogue.