There has been no shortage of hits packages for Heart, starting with 1980’s Heart’s Greatest Hits: Live, which at the time seemed to sum up a fading band’s run of commercial success. But with the release of 1985’s Heart, the Wilson sisters sparked a major comeback with their band, and by 1995, set off nearly annual production of anthologies and album reissues. In addition to single- and double-disc sets (including 1998’s Greatest Hits and 2002’s Essential), the band released a live run-through of their debut album on both CD and DVD. But as the band’s career stretched into the twenty-first century with Jupiters Darling and Red Velvet Car, and the Wilson sisters recorded solo and with their side-project, The Lovemongers, existing anthologies have fallen out of date.
Epic/Legacy cures this problem with a 3-CD, 1-DVD set that expands across Heart’s entire recorded legacy, including hits, album sides, live performances, demos and rarities. And rounding out the Wilsons’ legacy are solo selections and a pair by the Lovemongers. All together, twenty of the CDs’ fifty-one tracks are previously unreleased, and the DVD serves up a fifty-five minute live performance recorded in 1976 at Washington State University’s television station, KWSU. The opening instrumental of this vintage performance, as well as a scorching version of “Sing Child Sing,” shows the group’s progressive colors, but as they kick into “Heartless,” it’s clear that Heart was ready to rock. Hard. With the band’s debut album just released, they had the goods, but not yet the fame the album’s hits would bring. The video’s lighting, camera work and mono sound are good, and the picture (including some primitive special effects) holds up well for something no one probably thought would become historically important.
The CD set begins the Wilsons’ very first single, “Through Eyes and Glass” recorded as Ann Wilson & The Daybreaks in 1968, and released locally on the Topaz label. Key elements of Heart can be heard in the elder Wilson’s voice and flute, though the brooding mood is more connected to 1960s ballrooms than 1970s arenas. Skipping ahead to mid-70s demos, it feels as if the gauze of ‘60s acid culture has been lifted. Even in this early form, “Magic Man,” crackles with passion in both the rhythm and vocals. There’s a healthy dose of neo-psych in the guitar solo, but the song is undeniably powerful and anthemic. Other demos, such as “How Deep it Goes” and “Crazy on You,” are closer to final form, with Heart’s signature blend of electric and hard-strummed acoustic in place on the latter. Ann Wilson had yet to unleash her full vocal power in these demos, but you can hear how the songs will push her to great heights.
Though the box set covers songs from all thirteen Heart studio albums, they’re presented in a mix of studio, live and demo versions. The disputed Magazine album is represented by demos of “Here Song” and “Heartless,” the first of which actually sounds more polished than its album release, and a live version of “Devil Delight” that appears on the DVD. 1990’s Brigade offers up a demo of “Under the Sky” that is truly compelling in its lack of big studio gloss. Other demos, like the acoustic-guitar accompanied “Dog & Butterfly” show off the Wilsons’ songwriting, rather than Heart’s instrumental and production talents. Although the band’s commercial fortunes began to decline after 1980’s Bebe le Strange, they returned to commercial dominance in 1985 with five singles from Heart. Chief among the successes, and indicative of the band’s changes, was “These Dreams.” Written by Bernie Taupin and Martin Page, and sung by Nancy Wilson, the sound traded in the band’s guitar rock for synth-dominated modern pop, and navigated the commercial winds for the band’s first chart topper.
Heart remained commercially vital throughout the ‘80s, with Bad Animals and Brigade selling multi-platinum and spinning off multiple charting singles, but artistically, their demos, such as the terrific “Unconditional Love” and “Under the Sky” often showed more earthiness and soul than their heavily-produced albums. The first-half of the set’s third-disc is devoted to non-Heart material from the Lovemongers, solo performances, and live and demo tracks that were never remade in the studio. With the big hair ‘90s receding in the rear view mirror, the Wilsons returned to the more organic rock and blues roots with which they started the ‘70s, and the demos show that they still had ideas other people couldn’t fathom as Heart material. The disc closes out with songs from the band’s last three albums, plus “Little Problems, Little Lies,” from Ann Wilson’s solo release.
Curated by Ann and Nancy Wilson, with notes that detail how songs and performances came into being, this is an artist’s view of their career, and one that may not completely agree with a fan’s perspective. The demos and live tracks provide new angles on well-known songs, and the video gives latter-day fans a peek at what they missed seeing and hearing live in the mid-70s. Someone looking for a recitation of the biggest hits in their original form is better off with a single-disc collection or a couple of original albums; with nearly two-dozen charting singles (including a handful of Top 10s) missing from the track lineup, this box is more of a supplement to a Heart fan’s existing collection than a place to start one anew. At over an hour each, the CDs are well stocked, and the live video is an unparalleled treat. [©2012 hyperbolium dot com]