Auntie Annies feels disappointingly empty for this latest installment of the fledgling Animal Disco club. It’s more than likely that the limited crowd is due to Fight Like Apes’ performance just round the corner, but this isn’t the only reason. Compared to acts that have recently graced the stage of Annie’s like Cashier No 9 and Master & Dog, Desert Hearts haven’t got that oh so necessary hype surrounding them at the minute. The band are somewhat reclusive compared to some acts locally, seemingly going AWOL for months at a time before playing a show and then dropping back into the shadows once again.
Yet there’s genuinely no act quite like Desert Hearts on these shores. Their volatility and their sheer unpredictability coupled with their impressive back catalogue means this reviewer has simply no idea what’s going to happen from one gig to the next. With numerous lineup changes over the past decade, we’re not even sure who we’ll see beside Charlie Mooney & Roisin Stewart on stage. Things seem to have changed, however. Their label, No Dancing, has promised new material from the band while Stuart Bell (ex Panama Kings) and Stephen “Leaky” Leacock (the drummer from General Fiasco) are sticking around for the long haul.
So what of their performance tonight? It’s definitely a gig of two halves. The band kicks off with their new material, an aural trip back to the early 1990s: relatively upbeat, Pavementesque college rock tracks with some nice and subtle dynamic changes. While the new material is promising in a live setting, it isn’t quite as intense as the rest of the set and as such some of the crowd seem to lose interest. The band’s stage presence is more muted than usual but can be forgiven due to the relative novelty of the songs. A few more gigs under their belt and things will hopefully be up to speed.
There’s a distinct moment when things change for Desert Hearts. “New Kings” is more familiar territory for the band with that dark self-confidence we know so well returning with aplomb. Likening Desert Hearts to the Pixies should not be viewed as an insult by any means: there’s solid basslines, great guitar riffs and a rambunctious, self-destructive attitude that flows through the veins of the band creating an enticing spectacle akin to the legendary Boston band.
That lack of intensity highlighted earlier is no longer an issue and the crowd is well and truly paying attention as the band draw upon their albums Let’s Get Worse and Hotsy Totsy Nagasaki. “No More Art” is their showstopper, breathlessly kicking things into fifth gear. Drummer Leaky is in his element, propelling things forward at a breakneck speed. We’re only given a moment’s break before the raw, domineering bassline of “Sea Punk” rings out, retaining that precious momentum and energy before unleashing one final guitar solo upon the audience. The set climaxes a track too early and there’s an awkward pause before the band deliver their final new song of the night that marks a more measured approach in comparison to the unabashed album tracks previously performed: almost anthemic in nature, rising and falling before a distortion-heavy finale.
Before the guitars finally come to rest, Mooney puts on his duffel coat and retreats from the stage. Their stage presence may be a little lacking at times and their newer material not quite ready for mass market consumption, but Desert Hearts are as thrilling in 2011 as they were in 2001.