How can you not like a band that invites you to stop and sniff the glue in Teletubbyland?
On Guitar Romantic, Portland's Exploding Hearts restore the exuberance to rock 'n' roll. They make the White Stripes sound like a modern art installation. The dye may be fading on the Exploding Hearts roots, but there are no quotation marks around them.
On the opening track, "Modern Kicks," the drawn-out notes of the lead guitar wrap themselves around chords so curt they'd make Keith Richards proud, propelling you into one of the best Clash songs never written. And then comes the bridge, pried loose from Lucinda Williams' first hit "Passionate Kisses." It's as incongruous as it is ingenious. Every song on Guitar Romantic is like that, a hologram in which you see both a rainbow and your own reflection.
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For Exploding Hearts, punk isn't a period, but a stream of semicolons: the swagger of Gene Vincent; the swish of the New York Dolls; the sum of all the dog-eared, headphone-phobic LPs that Sum 41 forgot to honor. And Guitar Romantic is their gift to the community that sustained them, to all the bands that would rather play benefits and house parties than a "real" venue; that sleep on their fans' floors; that pile into worn-out vans to drive to the next town and do it all again, more interested in making a life than a living. Sometimes, though, the next stop is the last stop.
When the Exploding Hearts left San Francisco for home in late July, they were on the verge of making the breakthrough most bands can only fantasize. Guitar Romantic sold out its first pressings in three days, the press was getting warmer, and they had just opened for the Buzzcocks.
As anyone who has driven the 500-plus miles from San Francisco to Portland will tell you, the mountainous stretch between Redding and Eugene means hours of white-knuckle driving. And then you relax. It sounds like a metaphor for signing to a major label. But Exploding Hearts never got the chance. Their van left the road. By the time it stopped rolling, singer/guitarist Adam Cox, bassist Matt Fitzgerald and drummer Jeremy Gage were dead; guitarist Terry Six and manager Rachelle Ramos survived.
The first time you hear Guitar Romantic, your thoughts gravitate toward death. You ponder what Exploding Hearts could have become. And you mourn the songs you'll never get to hear, like you do with Buddy Holly. By the time you've listened to the record a few more times, though, it takes an effort to remember the tragedy at all. The songs stop you in your tracks; the pleasure keeps on going.