The Heaters: American Dream – The Portastudio Recordings

Heaters_AmericanDreamLos Angeles new wave band turns to girl group sounds in 1983

“The Heaters” is a popular band name. There was a Danish garage rock band, a Seattle quartet (who shortened their name to the Heats), a UK power pop band, a punk band, a reggae group, a funk band, a Los Angeles new wave band that recorded for Ariola and Columbia, and more recently, a trio from Grand Rapids. This Heaters is the Los Angeles group, one that felt their studio albums never really captured their sound. In frustration, they recorded themselves on a 4-track TASCAM Portastudio – home multitrack technology that’s commonplace today, but not so in 1983 – and doubled down on the nostalgic elements of their earlier works. In particular, the core creative trio of Mercy, Maggy and Missie wrote and recorded original, 60s-influenced girl group music.

The tapes were offered to Rhino, but the label heard them as demos rather than finished product, and the group declined to re-record. Released more than 30 years later, you can hear both the label and group’s points of view. Wary of their previous experience with record companies, studios and producers, the group chose to protect the fidelity of their art. What the label likely heard was a tension between the group’s ideas of grandly imagined pop and the realities of producing yourself for the first time on a 4-track cassette. What Rhino failed to hear, or perhaps wasn’t interested in, was the group’s tuneful fusion of a DIY aesthetic with a deep appreciation for 1960s craft. Others (e.g., Denny Ward) had successfully explored this pairing on indie releases, leaving one to wonder why the Heaters didn’t do the same.

What’s comes through loud and clear on these tapes is the siren’s call of the Blossoms, Crystals, Ronettes, Shirelles, Shangri-Las, Marvelettes and others. Several of the songs, including the beautifully crooned “Every Living Day,” could pass for vintage if their 1980s origins weren’t tipped by the guitars. The album’s centerpiece, “10,000 Roses,” borrows the iconic drumbeat of “Be My Baby,” and though its melody, lyric and vocal would have made the Brill Building proud, it’s slightly ragged mix is probably what Rhino thought could be tweaked. Still, even with the “oom-mow-mow” backing vocal popping out of the pocket, you can’t help but be charmed by the song and its Spanish-flavored acoustic guitar solo.

Many of the songs would have been at home in the early-60s, but the theme gets modern with “Sandy.” The song’s baion beat and stagey vocal might suggest inspiration from West Side Story or Grease, but the gender confusion at the lyric’s heart would have raised eyebrows in 1963. The girl group focus slips a bit more as “Rock This Place” moves into the 1970s, and elsewhere there’s a muscular rock sound akin to Robin Lane and Ellen Foley. These steps outside the narrow lane of the 1960s propels the album beyond an exercise in nostalgia, and fills out the group’s reach. This may not have been right for Rhino, but Bomp should have picked it up. Thirty-three years is too long to have waited to hear this, but better late than never. [©2016 Hyperbolium]

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