Discog Fever - Rating and Reviewing Every Heart Album (Part 1)

by Jeff Fiedler

Discog Fever is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com, rating and reviewing a band's entire catalogue of studio albums.

Dreamboat Annie (1975, Mushroom)

A

Surprisingly enough, Heart’s debut album might be the most deliberate album piece in their entire catalog; naturally, like any Heart album, it has its obvious singles, but this album, perhaps more so than any other disc by the band, sounds as if it was meant first and foremost to be listened to in full. The album is also one of the best examples of the band’s Led Zeppelin-like flair for alternating hard-rock outings with gentle acoustic numbers. There are actually three different versions of the title cut here, but don’t let that scare you off – each rendition lends something to the album and helps it cohere as a whole. [The gentle folk of “Dreamboat Annie (Fantasy Child),” which segues directly into “Crazy on You,” is the prettiest of the three versions, though the mid-tempo and more commercial “Dreamboat Annie” that closes the first side would be the one released as a single, just barely missing the Top 40.] The Zeppelin influences are just a little too obvious on “Sing Child,” but the band creates a hard-rock sound all its own in the smoky album opener “Magic Man” and the chugging “Crazy on You,” both Top 40 hits (“Magic Man” even reaching the Top Ten) and classic-rock staples. The disc is slightly front-loaded, but the second side contains two rather underrated ballads in the lovely “How Deep It Goes” and “(Love Me like Music) I’ll Be Your Song.”

Little Queen (1977, Portrait)

A

It didn’t yield as many big hits as its predecessor, but Little Queen is arguably the quintessential album of Heart’s first five years. The Led Zeppelin influences are even more pronounced, but the band so masterfully balances its love of hard rock here with its love of folk that this disc is comparable to a more self-consciously commercial version of Led Zeppelin III, and you’d have to be a real music snob to not find something to like about this disc if you’re a fan of Robert Plant and Jimmy Page. The band’s most famous guitar riff, “Barracuda,” is here and kicks off the disc in aggressive fashion. More casual fans may not recognize anything else here, but there’s no shortage of great songs, especially the funky title cut, the punchy rocker “Kick It Out,” the folk/hard-rock hybrid “Love Alive” (which calls to mind a more psychedelic version of Zeppelin’s “Over the Hills and Far Away”), and the pure folk of the mandolin-drenched “Dream of the Archer.” 

Magazine (1977, Mushroom)

C –  

A real legal mess of an album, Mushroom initially tried to take advantage of their two-album deal with Heart by taking what studio leftovers they could compile following the band’s hasty exit from the label (prompted by some distasteful promotion) and combining them with a few stray live recordings. The band objected and sued, and the album was quickly withdrawn from the market, the court ruling that the label was, in fact, entitled to release a second album but that the band could first re-record it if they saw fit. [The easiest way to identify the two pressings is to look at the tracklist; if the third track on Side Two is entitled “Blues Medley,” it’s an original pressing.] Naturally, it’s not at all a coherent album, and you can tell that the band’s hearts aren’t completely in it (not in the least since nearly half of the songs are covers, including one of Badfinger’s “Without You”), but it’s not without its good individual moments, namely the heavily-orchestrated ballad “Just the Wine” and the great Top 40 rocker “Heartless.”

Dog & Butterfly (1978, Portrait)

B + 

It’s not quite a concept album, but the band’s fourth outing is cleverly sequenced, the first side (“Dog”) containing all the more rock-oriented songs, while the second (“Butterfly”) features the more wistful, folk-oriented numbers; it’s a neat way of showing off the band’s two wildly different strengths without having too many strange juxtapositions from track to track. It feels slightly undercooked, if only because there are only eight cuts here, one of them a live recording that opens the disc and doesn’t quite fit in (“Cook with Fire”) and only ends up recalling the odds-and-ends nature of Magazine, but there are still some well-crafted songs here. The breezy rocker “High Time” gets the album back on track, the smoky “Hijinx” simply slithers, and the pounding Top 40 hit “Straight On” is easily the band’s most soulful number to date, while the album’s lovely, lazy folk-tinged title cut is arguably their prettiest ballad yet.

Bebe Le Strange (1980, Epic)

B  

The band’s first album of the Eighties – and its first without original lead guitarist Roger Fisher, who’d later re-surface (along with two other Heart alums, Steve Fossen and Michael Derosier, and several Sheriff alums) in the late ‘80s supergroup Alias of “More Than Words Can Say” fame – finds the band ditching the folk influences of the prior albums, instead playing up their popper side to balance out the harder-rocking cuts. But, unlike Dog &Butterfly, everything’s lumped together, meaning that an acoustic-guitar instrumental like “Silver Wheels” is jarringly followed by the punk-tinged frantic rocker “Break” and the heated epic “Rockin’ Heaven Down,” while the pounding rocker “Strange Night” is followed by the piano-pop of “Raised on You,” the sequencing only adding to the feeling that this is the band’s most confused and unfocused outing yet. You get the sense that Fisher’s departure from the band (as well as that of his brother, Mike, the band’s former manager/producer) initiated a minor identity crisis of sorts in the band. Still, even if the album doesn’t hold together nearly as well as Dreamboat Annie or Little Queen, there are plenty of great individual songs, particularly the snarling, horn-heavy R&B-tinged rock of “Even It Up” (easily one of the band’s most underrated singles), the soulful guitar grooves of the title cut, and the lovely album-closing piano ballad “Sweet Darlin’.”

Private Audition (1982, Epic)

B  

It’s no more focused than Bebe le Strange (boasting some even more unexpected stylistic excursions, such as the near-vaudeville-like pop and barrelhouse-style piano of the catchy title cut, which vaguely recalls the Beatles’ “Your Mother Should Know”), and it’s also fairly front-loaded, but this disc – the last to feature Fossen and Derosier – is much stronger and more intriguing than it’s usually given credit for, and there are some definite hidden gems here to be found for fans willing to dig this deep into their catalog. The fiery, hard-rocking album opener “City’s Burning” is arguably the single-most underrated song in the band’s body of work, while, on the complete opposite end of the spectrum, the pounding piano pop of “Bright Light Girl” is the band at its sunniest and bounciest. The album’s lone single may be not one of the band’s more obviously commercial sides (it sadly – but perhaps understandably – could only climb as high as #33), but the sultry, finger-snapping strut of “This Man Is Mine,” is one of the more appealingly unique singles Heart’s ever made, playing like a cross between Peggy Lee’s “Fever” and Olivia Newton-John’s wildly-underrated “A Little More Love,” and Ann Wilson gives a great nuanced vocal performance on the cut. The hooks are a little harder to come by on the album’s second side, but the penultimate cut, “Fast Times,” boasts enough of them to help mask the shortage a little. The disc might be a little too pop-heavy for fans of the band’s heavier, more hard-rock-oriented side (beyond “City’s Burning,” there’s little here that’s comparable to, say, “Barracuda”), but if you don’t mind the increased pop emphasis, it’s actually a fairly fun listen. Arguably the band’s most underrated studio album.

Passionworks (1983, Epic)

C

The band has made a few changes here. Fossen has been replaced with former Spirit and Firefall bassist Mark Andes and Derosier has been replaced with former Montrose drummer Denny Carmassi, while the band brings in an outside producer in the then red-hot Keith Olsen, who had helmed Fleetwood Mac’s self-titled 1975 American breakthrough and more recently produced albums for the likes of Pat Benatar and Rick Springfield. The good news is that the new lineup sounds great, and the band also seems a little more focused here than on either of the previous two discs. The bad news is that the material – all but one cut (the fine “Allies,” penned by Journey keyboardist Jonathan Cain) self-penned – is just not that memorable and the hooks are really weak by the band’s usual standards, and this would be the first disc from the band to fail to produce a Top 40 hit. “How Can I Refuse” (which didn’t miss the Top 40 by much, peaking at #44) and “Allies” are both fairly underrated, but they’re also obtainable on hits compilations and there’s little else here to make the album worth recommending to more casual fans.  It’s not a terrible album, but it’s not a great one, either, and only Magazine keeps this from being the weakest of the band’s pre-Capitol albums.

Heart (1985, Capitol)

A

A radical departure from their previous work, Heart makes quite a few changes here. They’ve left Epic for Capitol Records, for starters, and brought in a new producer in Ron Nevison. They heed Nevison’s advice and allow themselves to record outside material instead of trying to be fully self-contained, a good move since the band’s own songwriting had become a bit spotty in recent years. Lastly, they get a little more with the times and give their brand of hard-rock a stadium-sized makeover heavy on power ballads. It’s possible to call this disc a sell-out, but there’s just something about the makeover that works and sounds so suitable for the band that it strangely never feels crass. Oh, and the songs? This is the best set of songs the band has had to work with in years, and radio programmers took note, the disc resurrecting the band’s chart fortunes and giving them an incredible four Top Ten hits (all the more incredible coming from a band that had only had two of them over the previous ten years): the arena bombast of “What About Love” (one of the finest power ballads of the decade, boasting backing vocals from Grace Slick and Mickey Thomas from Starship and co-authored by Bryan Adams’ co-writer Jim Vallance), the vaguely-funky chugging rock of the Top Five hit “Never” (co-written by Holly Knight, who had co-written Pat Benatar’s “Love Is a Battlefield” and Scandal’s “The Warrior”), the appealing mid-tempo rock of “Nothin’ at All” (featuring Survivor’s Frankie Sullivan on guitar and Huey Lewis and the News’ Johnny Colla on backing vocals) and, best of all, the devastatingly pretty, Nancy Wilson-sung ballad “These Dreams,” originally written by longtime Elton John lyricist Bernie Taupin and future ‘90s adult-contemporary pop star Martin Page (“In the House of Stone and Light”) for Stevie Nicks’ Rock a Little album but rejected. Nicks’ loss would be Heart’s gain, and the band deservedly got their first Number One hit single as a result. “If Looks Could Kill” may have surprisingly missed the Top 40, but it still makes a great opening cut. Sure, there’s filler here (the band’s own entirely-self-penned songs here largely lack strong hooks), but the band sounds so newly inspired and thoroughly re-energized that even the few flaws here don’t prevent this from being one of the finest comeback albums of the ‘80s.