Album Review: The Physical Hearts

Shepherd's Gun (Self-Released)

[POP SHREDZ] A singer’s voice can win a band my instant affection or instant dismissal. Neko Case had me at hello. Staind’s Aaron Lewis became my mortal enemy for life the first time I heard “Just Go.” But then
there are those singers—the Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle, Destroyer’s Dan Bejar (see here), the Builders and the Butchers’ Ryan Sollee—that just took a little time for me to warm up to. The Physical Hearts’ Nathaniel Talbot—whose bright, warbly voice bridges the unlikely gap between Morrissey and James Taylor—was one of these. He won me over after a few listens to 2009 EP Fend Off the Tide, which set Talbot against a backdrop of adult contemporary-style backdrops (think lazy steel guitar and guitar leads that match Talbot’s vocal lines) that burst suddenly into unexpected shredding. It was clean and it was radio-ready, but it was deep enough to warrant repeated listens.

The Physical Hearts' new, slightly longer EP, Shepherd's Gun, finds the band moving forward and backward at the same time. Its progressive steps burn bright: "New Year's Scar" shoots for Ted Leo and lands a bit closer to Jimmy Eat World, but the five-minute-plus tune never gets boring—the 90-second instrumental in the middle contains four distinct movements that rank among the disc's most striking moments. The jazzy and complex "Porch Light," like a prize fighter, alternates between furious and floaty—like the Mars Volta custom-crafting a set for Tony Starlight's. Lyrically it's just as dynamic, with weird mechanical descriptions and vaguely creepy dead-end plotlines underscored by Lee Ritter's skittering drumwork. Closer "Physical Heart" explains the band's name over aching Western guitar leads and big Tennessee Three bass.

But excitement at the band's expanded horizons is tempered by its insistence at including detours into unsettlingly polished funk-rock on the title track and the especially Jack Johnson-esque "Mayflower." Both tracks have their merits—a crunchy wall of sound that punctuates the more interesting departures of "Shepherd's Gun" and some lovely, if noodling, solos on "Mayflower"—but it's hard to get past the cheese of the verses to find the compelling musicianship below. And that's a problem the Physical Hearts have skirted around all along.

An acrobatic, slick and well-trained voice like Talbot's is going to make or break this band for a lot of people. Shepherd's Gun proves that the way Talbot's pipes are presented—for better or worse—is just as important.

SEE IT: The Physical Hearts play Mississippi Studios on Saturday, March 19, with 1939 Ensemble and Celilo. 9 pm. $10. 21+.

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