Enturbulation = No Challenge
Desert Hearts remain charmingly unfamiliar with the zeitgeist as they release their 'beguiling' third album
They say that all good things come to those who wait. And, as everyone knows, good things come in threes. So, after a seven-year wait, does Desert Hearts’ third album live up to expectations?
When Let’s Get Worse was released back in 2002, there was a palatable sense that something special had landed in our midst. It was a confident, original debut record, setting Desert Hearts up as The Real Deal.
2006’s Hotsy Totsy Nagasaki was arguably even better, showcasing a band that were capable of incredible subtlety one moment, and blowing your speakers out the next. Yet wider popularity proved elusive. Desert Hearts remained the connoisseur's choice.
Long periods of silence followed, occasionally punctuated by the odd show. And some of the shows really, truly were odd. The lineup that recorded the two records splintered several times over, the only constants being singer, guitarist and songwriter Charlie Mooney, and bassist, Roisin Stewart.
After a particularly quiet period, Desert Hearts re-emerged (albeit tentatively) with Stephen Leacock and Stuart Bell, of General Fiasco, adding drums and guitar, prompting raised eyebrows from those in ‘the scene’. Now, almost four years later, it is this line-up that has released Enturbulation = No Challenge, the latest chapter in Desert Hearts' underdog story.
So, does it live up to expectations? Right from the opening strains, it’s clear that Desert Hearts have once again expanded upon the successes of their previous triumphs. ‘Wolf Down’ begins on a bed of acoustic guitars and what sounds like a harmonium, before bursting into life thanks to electric guitars and drums, pedal steel guitar and banjo. It's a lively hoe-down that lets the listener know things have changed.
‘Aw Devastation’ and ‘Powertrash’ show that Desert Hearts have lost none of their muscle or spryness over the years, sounding almost anthemic as Mooney’s cracked croon releases lines like, 'It is proper creation meaner than death, aw, never got to war with yourself' over shining, gleaming chords.
For Desert Hearts round three, the overriding influences seem to be classic rock and country; all vestiges of ‘indie’ have been hammered out of their sound. This is soulful, mature, uplifting stuff, and it sounds positively unstoppable.
Stuart Bell’s pedal steel guitar becomes the band’s new secret weapon, the eerie washes of sound gliding effortlessly over the top of Mooney and Stewart’s finely developed sense of melody. All the while, Stephen Leacock’s percussion provides a thunderous accompaniment, never overly fussy, and delivering just what the song needs. Leacock has developed into a drummer capable of displaying real finesse.
On Enturbulation = No Challenge, Desert Hearts reveal that their forte is strident, direct rock, delivered with a lightness of touch. There are moments on this record that will have you pumping your fist in the air, then reaching for a tissue to wipe the tears away. The only real misstep is ‘Liberators’, a slightly jarring rock stomper that doesn’t quite gel, sounding a bit too thuggish in comparison with the rest of the material.
As with so many things relating to the band, there are questions to be asked, and the likelihood of getting any answers is slim. So, regardless of whether it actually is the case or not, Enturbulation = No Challenge becomes, by default, Desert Hearts’ most personal album.
Their lyrics have always tended towards the oblique, but there is a directness to these songs that is disarming and surprising. On 'Oak Mot' Mooney sings, 'We lost our child this time last year, on this very day, and I don’t know what to say'. Coupled with some incredible music, these songs become strikingly powerful works of art that are likely to endure.
Ultimately, there’s a lingering sense that Desert Hearts probably won’t pick up many new fans with this record, simply because they remain as beguilingly out of step as they ever have been. If there is a zeitgeist, Desert Hearts remain charmingly unfamiliar with it. Nevertheless, Enturbulation = No Challenge is easily the band’s best work. If it manages to find the audience it so dearly deserves, Belfast’s best kept secret will be a secret no more.