Think of Seattle, and any of a number of laudable rock artists come to mind – Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Mudhoney, Alice In Chains, Jimi Hendrix, Heart… Heart? Yes, indeed. Though it’s more often Seattle’s male rock stars we remember best, sisters Ann and Nancy Wilson are as much an important part of Seattle’s music history as Hendrix and Cobain.
Perhaps one reason Heart is so easy to gloss over when recalling Seattle’s contributions to rock in the past 25 years lies in the very success Heart achieved. Whereas Hendrix and Cobain died only a handful of years into their careers, Soundgarden and Alice broke up and Pearl Jam shunned the spotlight in order to keep their collective heads together as they continue to make music on their own terms, Heart went for a dramatic change in style when times changed in order to stay successful. The change worked, as far as chart hits were concerned, ensuring that the public would have little time to stop and remember the glory days of old.
Listening to the new collection “The Essential Heart” (Epic/Capitol/Legacy), one may be surprised to learn just how many recognizable songs Heart has released since their first record back in 1976. The two-disc collection is divided between the band’s two distinct eras. Disc one covers the classic mid-70s to early-80s hits and album tracks that established the Wilson sisters as the female alternative to Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant and Jimmy Page. Like Zeppelin, some of Heart’s best tunes (“Crazy on You,” “Barracuda,” “Little Queen,” “Kick It Out,” “Even It Up”) boast unforgettable guitar riffs. Also like Zeppelin, a delicate, distinctive folk sound infuses classics like “Love Alive,” “Dog and Butterfly,” and the beautiful instrumental “Silver Wheels.” Solidifying the Zeppelin connection is a blistering live cover of “Rock and Roll,” recorded in 1980.
By the end of the first disc, Heart’s sound has noticeably changed. “How Can I Refuse” and “Allies” mark a transitional period, where the Zeppelin-esque tendencies of the first era begin to fade. The more mainstream-pop direction Heart was beginning to chart exploded with their move to Capitol Records in the mid-80s and the release of the album simply titled “Heart.” Disc two of “The Essential Heart” covers the period that starts with the huge mid-80s hits “What About Love,” “These Dreams,” and “Never.” Gone were the organic sounds of “Crazy on You” and “Dog and Butterfly,” replaced by slick, computerized 1980s production values and a visual style more suitable for the MTV generation.
It would be far too easy to dismiss this period of Heart’s career outright. However, there is no denying that the songs Heart released in the ’80s and early ’90s were catchy and memorable, and they seem to hold up much better than analogous hits for Chicago and Genesis, two other ’70s bands who also got major career makeovers in the ’80s. The sisters may not have written “Never,” “Alone,” or “All I Wanna Do Is Make Love To You,” but they sing them like they mean every word. They may as well have written them, for it would be hard to imagine anyone else taking on these songs with nearly as much conviction.
By the early ’90s, Heart’s success was beginning to fade yet again. The MTV generation was crowding the market with a whole new sound, and ironically, it was Heart’s hometown of Seattle that changed the musical landscape all over again, making it difficult for the sisters to dent the charts. However, Alice in Chains certainly knew where they came from. They featured Ann and Nancy on 1992’s “Am I Inside,” from Alice’s “Sap”
EP, and Alice’s Layne Stayley lent his pipes to Heart for their excellent cover of Bob Dylan’s “Ring Them Bells.” The latter recording is included on “The Essential Heart,” and it turns out to be the shining diamond in the rough of the collection’s second disc.
As far as revisionist history goes (which isn’t always a bad thing), the story of Heart is ripe for a re-telling, as Nirvana recaptures the public’s attention posthumously and Pearl Jam readies for another tour. What’s more, the Seattle ladies are themselves launching a comeback. With TV appearances on the horizon and “The Essential Heart” as a potent reminder of just what the sisters Wilson are capable of, here’s hoping that this Heart will capture ours all over again.