New Music: Sweetheart

It’s hard to know what to make of Sweetheart, in part because they tend to evoke equal numbers of positive and negative associations in their listeners. The sound of this Kent, Ohio quartet is easy enough to describe: a driving weave of melodic guitar lines combined with vocal harmonies that occasionally bleed into fast, screamy breakdowns. But just as it is impossible to listen to this CD without the party of helicopter’s seminal Mt. Forever coming to mind, it is equally difficult to tune out the strains of any number of mediocre pop-punk bands.

art is dead is dead, the band’s first CD (containing songs from their self-released tour 7”, four previously unreleased tracks, and a number of live videos) is a lot like the late work of certain hardcore bands (cough Hot Cross cough) who started out good but then inexorably and disappointingly progressed towards the more poppy and not-good.

The album and the videos that attend it show a tension between two forces tugging them in opposite directions—the desire to be witty, ironic, and hip, and the desire to be an awesome rock/hardcore outfit.

The first three tracks emblemize this interplay. Track one (“Am I saying ‘tight’ too much?”) begins with what sounds like a classic indie-pop-punk riff and whiny vocals (“fuck this town/I’ll burn it down”) but then eventually progresses to an impassioned and screechy vocal breakdown à la Born Against’s “I am an Idiot.” This trend crops up again, but reversed, in track three—starting out with the intense cathartic vocals and then slowing down to a poppy, tongue-in-cheek spoken word number that suggests a disempowerment far removed from the agency implied by the previous spirited rocking-out: “I only want to be attractive ‘coz I want to attract you/and I wish I were thin/goddamn this body, so fat and crude/and I wish I were witty and I want to be cultured and patient too...”

In the video for “this song is about arms,” one of the better songs on the CD, the two vocalists can be seen as iconic of both these trends: the guitarist-vocalist has a full beard with a strange haircut, holes in his baggy pants, and looks vaguely dirty, while the bassist-vocalist has carefully coifed hair and wears a tight, stylish outfit with a sweatband around his wrist. In the video, while the former stands relatively still as the song begins, the latter jumps around and does a bunch of fake/ironic aerobic stretches. Over the course of the song, the first is intent and serious about his singing/guitar playing, the other engages in endless grand-guitar-picking-gestures, leaning back and spinning around, even at one point miming the checking his watch and listening to it to see if it still ticks. If you’ll bear with me, this is pretty much exactly what the band sounds like

It will be interesting to see where they go from here, especially since the last three songs on their debut CD actually show a lot of promise. The aforementioned “this song about arms” shines with emotional fervency and openness (“maybe someday things won’t be so bad…”), and “fast times at right now” deftly combines their powerful guitar skills with fiery vocals that fiercely question the lifestyle choices of the addressed (“You wake up in the morning and instantly you regret that, too/staring down the barrel of ex-punk…guilty of a self-indulgent haircut/turning turncoat on us”). Perhaps most thought-provoking is the last song, titled, “I truly love you but I cannot sing…”, which has no vocals but nevertheless lists lyrics on the back of the CD—“I truly love you but I cannot sing, and yes I could scream your name as loud as I’ve wanted to, as loud as I should, but my band is far too small for anyone to hear it anyway.” Is this a mature statement of the limitations of the medium to express the depths of certain feelings? Or a giving up of sorts, a repudiation of the punk-rock tradition of singing-when-you-can’t-sing, giving it all you’ve got and believing/hoping that is sufficient? It remains unclear.

Also unclear is the ultimate question: which will win out, the hip or the hardcore? Time will tell. I’m hoping for the hardcore, because this band has great potential.