The Belfast four-piece launch their third album in Voodoo, Belfast with a blistering set of the old and the new
Over the last decade, Desert Hearts have been a reliably volatile presence on Northern Ireland's indie rock scene. For a long period of time, they were known as much for their unpredictable live performances and for frontman Charlie Mooney's temper and acidic sense of humour as for their bruised and frequently beautiful records.
In the last couple of years, however, things seem to have changed. They have a stable and fruitful line-up, with ex-General Fiasco duo Stuart Bell and Stephen Leacock having joined core members Mooney and bassist Roisin Stewart, while new songs have largely jettisoned the strung-out post-punk stylings of old in favour of sweet melodies and mid-tempo arrangements. It's as if the band has finally emerged from a turbulent adolescence and into maturity.
Some things have been lost in the process. Third album Enturbulation = No Challenge lacks the aggressive edge that has characterised much of their best work – but other things have been gained, including a raft of heart-swelling new songs. And, dare we suggest, collective contentment – even happiness.
Mooney is in great form throughout this official album launch show in Voodoo, Belfast, even joking that the band plan to play the album in full, and indulging in his favourite (if bewildering to newcomers) on-stage pastime of repeatedly aiming friendly abuse at his old friend in the crowd, the singer Robyn G Shiels.
But when it comes to playing the songs, Mooney and his cohorts take to them with absolute conviction. Beginning with the first three tracks from Enturbulation is a statement in itself, and back-to-back 'Wolf Down', a joyous 'Aw Devastation' and 'Powertrash' make for a stirring opening salvo.
Desert Hearts' brand of indie-rock is nothing that anyone hasn't heard before, variously recalling bands like Arab Strap, the Pixies, Idlewild and R.E.M., but they have a real knack for writing songs that prick the emotions.
None more so than 'Sea Punk', the first older number of the night. It barrels in on a bassline worthy of Kim Deal, while Mooney delivers his bitter, lovelorn lyrics and all four members attack their instruments with animalistic zeal. It's a life-affirming performance.
The same can be said of some other old favourite, 'New Kings', the bleak catharsis of 'No More Art' and a couple of the new songs, especially 'The Usual' and the marvellous 'Barebarbu'. Like much of the new album, the latter is a study in uplift, all the more so in the explosion of noise that is the song's outro – Mooney and Bell's contorted and sweating over their guitars; Stewart and Leacock pounding out the rhythm.
If there is one criticism to be made, it's that Roisin Stewart's heavenly backing vocals are underused, especially in the newer songs. It might sound like a facile comparison, but she really is Northern Ireland's answer to Kim Deal.
She's obviously influenced by Deal in her melodic yet robust bass playing, and very much reminiscent of her when she gets to sing. During new song 'Jesus Took LSD And Thought He Was Me', she can be seen singing along, away from the mic. Her voice blends so well with Mooney's that she could only have enhanced it.
But that's a small quibble in an otherwise exemplary set. In a small-ish venue and in front of a crowd of mostly familiar faces, tonight feels very much like a celebration of all that Desert Hearts have stood for over the last decade – the rough and the smooth.
With touring to come, one hopes that more people will be turned on to a band that enjoys hero status among a small niche of Belfast gig-goers. On tonight's evidence, they are ready to grasp any opportunities that might come their way with both hands.