Mope and Glory
Local Duo Metal Hearts Release a Superb Second Album—But Are More Excited About The Next One
When City Paper first talked to the Metal Hearts last year (Arts & Entertainment, Feb. 2, 2005) , they had been a band barely a few months. The two Baltimore teenagers who make up the Hearts, Anar Badalov and Flora Wolpert-Checknoff, had only met a year and a half prior. They had just self-released their first album, Escapists. The future was uncertain. “I didn’t expect to come back here,” Badalov said at the end of the interview. “But if we’re not famous in six months or, you know, at least making money, I guess there’s always school.”
What a difference a year makes. “We stopped [working day jobs] about a month ago,” says Badalov now, sitting in the City Paper offices and looking slightly overwhelmed by the events of the last 12 months. “Not because we can, really, but because we have to.”
“It’s all or nothing, from now on,” Wolpert-Checknoff says.
“At least for these next couple of years, just give it everything possible,” Badalov says.
At the beginning of this week, the Hearts released their second album, Socialize, via Seattle’s Suicide Squeeze. “Even when we first started, we wanted to get signed and we wanted to tour, even if we didn’t know what we were doing,” Badalov says. They’re about to take off on a month-long U.S. tour that takes them to such scenic locales as Bloomington, Ind., and Gambier, Ohio. How long had their previous tours lasted?
“Four or five days,” they both laugh.
Are they nervous? “There’s going to be a lot of struggling, but hopefully we’ll be OK,” Wolpert-Checknoff says.
Most debuts from just-formed bands comprised of kids barely out of high school involve a lot of thinking out loud in public. (In other words, they’re sloppy.) Escapists sounded fully formed, attracting the attention of people such as Swans/Angels of Light frontman Michael Gira, who was an old man the moment he came out of the womb. Socialize is even more accomplished, a sustained mood piece of prime bummed-out rock music. Listen to it frequently enough and you may wonder if things in your life are as OK as you thought.
What’s perhaps most amazing is that this album is only days old, but the Hearts are already more focused on the next one. “We started recording again a couple weeks ago, actually,” Badalov says. “It’s sounding really bluesy now. You can still tell it’s us, but either it’s more complex, or it’s just better songwriting. Something’s really different about it.”
“It’s just a whole different style,” Wolpert-Checknoff says.
In fact, they’re not fans of bands who let their sound stagnate, even old favorites and formative influences. “It’s not very mature sounding,” Badalov says of former obsession Arab Strap, the bearded Scottish duo whose music always sounds like a damp cigarette. “At some point it just gets old, him moping on every album. So we’re not going down that path at all.”
But for the time being, that drizzly seaside ambiance continues to permeate the Hearts’ sound on Socialize, like smoke into clothes after a night at the bar. Drums poke along at a turtle shuffle. Guitars pick high, lonesome clouds of notes while the bass tends to do the heavy lifting of slowly inching the songs forward. String instruments sigh in unison at the back of the mix. It’s actually perfect moping music, in other words, and perfect for a cold, slushy, and gray time of year.
And they sing as if anything above a whisper would break the spell. “Whatever happened to the girl that disappeared,” Wolpert-Checknoff sings on “Disappeared,” sounding as if she’s about to do just that. “She floated away,” comes the reply.
“Even recording this new album now, we’re going to have to go back and make [the vocals] louder,” Wolpert-Checknoff says.
“Luckily it’s just as easy as raising the levels,” Badalov says. “I actually prefer singing low, but now there’s this big band behind me, so we kind of have to take it to the next level.”
Most of all, the band seems excited to be working with a real, live drummer, Sam Leiber, as opposed to the drum machines and samples that have powered Escapists and Socialize. “It was kind of ridiculous,” Badalov says of playing with a drum machine onstage. “Where was all that sound coming from?”
But the programmed drums often give the music a unique frisson. “Mountain Song,” from Socialize, stumbles and starts with a rat-a-tat rhythm that wouldn’t sound out of place on 92Q if the rest of the track wasn’t too depressed to get out of bed. At one point, they use a sample of what sounds like James Brown’s “Funky Drummer” that’s been sucked on by a funk-hating vampire.
Even with a new drummer and a new album, the future is still uncertain, and the Metal Hearts have new concerns to worry about, such as tours and record labels. Though they’d probably balk at the idea, there’s the possibility of real success, especially now that WB and Fox dramas have made the world safe for disturbingly beautiful teenagers to wallow in indie misery. You can easily see a canny label exploiting their backstory—they hated each other when they first met, they started collaborating via Instant Messenger, etc.—for a post-MySpace world.
But Badalov doesn’t see them abandoning their bedroom roots for glossy success any time soon. “We don’t look forward to working in a studio so much,” he says. “I like the basement feeling. I think everyone in the band likes it. Unless our label tells us that we have to” record in a studio.
“Not that I think they would,” Wolpert-Checknoff counters.
“Probably not,” Badalov laughs. “ It’s cheaper this way, too, of course.”
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