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Album of the Week: Heart Bones, 'Hot Dish'

Heart Bones 'Hot Dish' cover
Heart Bones 'Hot Dish' coverCourtesy of Heart Bones
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by Mac Wilson

April 20, 2020

Last week, I took a look at Pearl Jam's Gigaton, and noted how it could serve as the framework to an as-yet-unrealized live show, which would then bring a new context to its songs. As we look at this week's Album of the Week, Heart Bones' Hot Dish, a similar yet opposite scenario is in play: it's a document of an already-established live show. In the absence of said live show, an album that might otherwise seem superfluous becomes comforting in new ways.

Saying that the existence of an album seems "superfluous" would seem like a diss in almost every context. Let me be very clear: Heart Bones are a *phenomenal, wonderful* act. The band is a collaboration between Sabrina Ellis of A Giant Dog and Sweet Spirit, and Sean Tillmann, aka Har Mar Superstar. Their songs follow the same basic gist: '80s-style synthpop that gets elevated to a new level by their wholly interesting, complementary yet contrasting lead vocal styles. The cornerstone of Heart Bones' existence has been their live show, featuring Ellis and Tillman bringing a bold energy, mixed with period-appropriate costumes, outrageous antics, and of course, fun tunes. Their performances are riotously fun, as evidenced in particular by their set at Rock The Garden last summer.

Hot Dish mirrors those very live shows that made the band famous/notorious. The hits are all here; whether you've heard them on The Current, or caught them as part of a live set, almost all of these songs will already seem intimately familiar to anyone who's experienced Heart Bones over the last few years. Ellis is one of my favorite vocalists working today, and the music feels both sprightlier and brawnier than ever: maybe Tillmann's ongoing friendship and collaborations with the Strokes' Julian Casablancas played a part, but these are some of the most urgent compositions of his career. I've been really struck by "Little Dancer" lately, which was of course a staple of their live show, but I always thought of in my head as The One with the Incredible Synth Riff, and other Current favorites/earworms all show up here, such as "This One's Different" and "Open Relations." Devotees will also be happy to see that the record includes their cover of "Hungry Eyes," the classic ballad by erstwhile Raspberry-turned-COVID-19 conspiracy theorist, Eric Carmen.

The first time you saw Heart Bones, maybe the "Hungry Eyes" cover came as a dramatic reveal late in the set. While it occupies a similar dramatic slot towards the end of the album here, that element of surprise is also largely gone, which points to the closest thing there is to a flaw of the album. The fact that Hot Dish hits all the high notes of the band's live sets is truly an asset, but also means that the album doesn't pay a whole bunch of dividends beyond that. As you might enjoy their concert, you wouldn't necessarily go to see them every day, and thus, it's tough to feel compelled to go back and spin the album again and again. It's designed to supplement the drama of the live show, not exceed it. In a world where the band was actively performing, Hot Dish might indeed feel superfluous... but as we know, that world happens to have been thrown out the window! It stands, then, as a fun document of what turned out to have been a series of good old days, and until the day when we can once again watch Ellis and Tillmann boogie around the stage in spandex, Hot Dish will hit all the right pleasure spots.