Click to hear: “Mean Song”
When Portland’s Hot Tarts first appeared a few years ago, they were a godsend to a scene that, as always, needed a bit more rock in its indie-rock. They were fierce, they were funny, they were spartan and simplistic. Three or so years later – on their self-titled, debut CD – each of those qualities has reversed itself somewhat. The Hot Tarts plays up the duo’s craft and enviable musicianship, but downplays the off-the-cuff humor and boundless charm that have helped make the group local favorites. Sadly, that’s quite a lot to miss – caught live, the Hot Tarts remain the area’s most charming band. This album is still well worth your time and money, but the record serves best as a complement to seeing the group perform, rather than the other way around.
The Hot Tarts are a band that doesn’t need to fire on all cylinders to take off, and their record has more than plenty to offer listeners. Singer-guitarist Lana Eddy has written a batch of gems, and while her voice is oddly understated here, it’s still a powerful instrument – so much so that listeners might not pick up on the Hot Tarts’ secret weapon: her effortlessly rhythmic and inventive guitar work. Eddy rarely strums or riffs; she shuffles and vamps and does for her own songs what – seriously – Keith Richards did for Mick Jagger’s songs.
Like Eddy, drummer Cyndi Pappenfus refuses to play a simple groove when a more complex one will suffice. The record is full of unexpected rhythms that nonetheless work flawlessly. Eddy and Pappenfus frequently switch up tempos mid-song, but there is no artifice involved. Unlike most bands who do this, the changes serve the songs, not the musicians. In one standout track, “Booze $,” the tempo starts insistent and determined, but gains intensity as the song, and Eddy, get closer to their titular goal. It falls off again toward the end, leaving the listener, and maybe the “you” addressed in the song, to wonder if she really did mean all those nasty things, or was simply caught up in the frustration of the moment.
Balancing sweet with tart is a specialty of this group. “Mean Song” defines that balance, as Eddy starts out singing, “I didn’t mean for this to be/a bitter song about you and me, but…,” and then goes on to explain why it has to be. Her reticence never falters, but neither does her case, and the song ends up not a tirade, but a sad, confident, matter-of-fact goodbye.
It’s the sort of song, like “Booze $,” that Eddy puts over so well live. On stage, she can use knowing glances and side chuckles to show all the nuances and conflicting emotions in these songs. That masterful showmanship has left audiences alternately in swoons or stitches – sometimes both. Delivered more or less straight, the recorded versions of these songs only imply the depth that’s obvious when they are performed live.
At almost 50 minutes, The Hot Tarts has time to cover plenty of ground. Other highlights are the alternately stomping and rolling jangle-pop of “Do Me,” and the classic-sounding “Tomorrow,” a song that struts, builds and releases like it was born, rather than written.
For the most part, Eddy sings bridges rather than choruses, but a stunning exception comes near the end of this disc, in the simple, utterly infectious refrain of “No-Oh!” It’s the rare moment on this record that bears any resemblance to the raw, punkish rock of ‘90s groups like Bikini Kill. The Hot Tarts are a style unto themselves, and they rock in their own idiosyncratic and unstoppable way.
Producer Adam Reny has put a nice sheen on the duo’s sound, and the guitar and drums shine throughout this disc. One can only wish he’d been able to coax more of the band’s live magic onto the record. It’s a tough genie to bottle, but if the Hot Tarts can ever manage that, they’ll be set to conquer the world. Or, at the very least, a smart, significant, and very appreciative niche thereof.
— Jeremy Skehan
The Hot Tarts is available at Portland record stores of distinction.