Hearts & Hand Grenades – ‘WHERE I BEGIN’

By Ian Kenworthy

Everyone likes a bit of contrast. Think about it; chalk and cheese, sweet and sour, and of course, Hearts & Hand Grenades. It’s a name that promises both love and explosive power. Listening to their music, it’s a good fit.

They define themselves as a “hard-rock” band so you’ll have a good idea what you’re getting with their third album ‘Where I Begin’. It’s driven by slick lead guitars, strong melodies from singer Stefanie Wlosinski, and a love of big riffy hooks. Their songs combine elements of punk and hard rock – there’s definitely some contrast there too, but still – it brings to mind a gutter Halestorm, a grubby version of The Pretty Reckless, or at least one of the bands fronted by Brody Dalle.

Delve into the band’s discography and you’ll discover a theme, not just in sound, but in the artwork too. This album slots neatly into that oeuvre so if you’ve enjoyed their previous work then this is a record for you. However, this third album doesn’t just follow their established approach and iconography, it also brings fresh ideas and, more importantly, some of the band’s strongest material yet.

As far as openers go, the lurching march of ‘Burn (By My Fire)’ is surefooted rather than thrilling. It’s an upbeat stomper that pulls you into the record, establishing the fact that after three records, they’re sure of what they’re doing even if it lacks a little bite. However, it’s a solid grounding and is followed by ‘Better Off Alone’, the kind of catchy meat-and-potatoes rock song that this type of band needs to nail, which they do.

By this point they’ll have you convinced that they’re confident and their work is reassuringly competent, so you’ll be invested when they start mixing it up. The fast punky anthem ‘Anywhere But Here’ thrives on its polish while the sultry riffs powering ‘Boom’ push its vibe in a different direction. They’re clearly having fun and by contrasting the type of riff each song is built around they give each a different feel. Compare the big chords that open ‘Over Again’ to the high lead part that gives ‘Silver’ its pre-chorus hook or the grander tone harnessed by ‘The Way Down’ and you’ll see how they keep the energy flowing toward the album’s conclusion.

Vocalist and bass-wizard Wlosinski has a strong, distinctive voice and her personality shines through. This is notable where she leans heavily on different phrases to create slick little hooks, especially on the big singles like ‘Where I Begin’. She’s equally delightful on ‘Boom’ where she chews her way through the syllables to give it an emotional hook that the lyrical content shouldn’t really allow.

For this release the band returned to their go-to producer Justin Rose, perhaps best-known for his work with Goo Goo Dolls. Their website boasts a detailed account of the recording process which, though dull, does contain some insightful gems – such as the drums being recorded using an electronic drum kit and real cymbals. The pre-recorded sounds triggered by Cory Michalski’s playing work well with his drumming style, but the cymbals sit distractingly high in the mix and seem to ring out far more than you’d expect.

Hard rock is a mature genre and it’s difficult to keep sounding fresh so it’s pleasing that the band throw in a few curveballs. The acoustic guitar driving ‘Let Me Down’ creates a welcome change of pace, however it’s the wry ‘I Just Want My Rock’ that really pushes the band’s capabilities. Keenly aware of what they’re doing, it uses lyrics that demand a rock song only to hard-shift into twangy country-style riffs then plunge back into the band’s hardest rock sound during the chorus. And then, while you’re suffering whiplash, shifts style again by ladling on the wah-wah guitar and then throws in a guest rap spot. Although adding a rapper is an over-used trick, and does feel a little lame, having him bemoan his own inclusion is fun if nothing else. Despite sounding chaotic on paper it works surprisingly well as the album’s centrepiece. Similarly, ‘Silver’ throws together a collection of ideas that all seem at odds. None of it fits together particularly well but the uncomfortable mix of sounds gives it a pleasing ugliness that belies the band’s punk rock roots.

Just like in love and war, all’s fair on ‘Where I Begin’. It’s a satisfying hard rock record with some interesting ideas, big hooks, and solid riffs.

IAN KENWORTHY

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