As sisters Ann and Nancy Wilson of Heart hit three dozen years as recording artists, can they still rock?
Straight on, baby. The Wilson sisters sound as good as ever in my book on Fantatic, their 14th studio album, new from Legacy Recordings.
In an age of mindlessly repetitious and vaguely melodic dance pop, having Heart still standing as rock stalwarts feels almost like the “In your face, disco!” tour by Bruce Springsteen in ’78, when the masses all felt they “should be dancing, yeah.”
I mean, somebody’s got to keep the faith and hold the torch high, and Heart does it here, with incendiary rockers like the lead-off title track, bolstered by Ann’s still-belting voice and the crunching guitar riffs of Nancy and co-writer Ben Mink.
But while I respect the heaviosity of their Led Zep bents, I also savor changes of pace and tone, as with Walkin’ Good, a tuneful acoustic duet by Ann and folkish crooner Sarah McLachlan (who can rock, too, as with one of her best songs, Sweet Surrender, and who, like the Wilsons, has Vancouver ties.)
Yet the top tune of this 10-song bunch, for me, is one that many may enjoy but may not “get,” since they won’t recognize it — especially with a new title. In fact, every review I’ve read so far has missed this song’s distinction, but here it is:
Track 5, A Million Miles, is not a new song. In fact, it’s a half-century old. It’s a song which was popularized in America in the early ’60s, when folk music ruled. In fact, it appeared on the first album of Peter, Paul and Mary.
Except then it wasn’t called A Million Miles. It was called 500 Miles.
Hey, we’re exploring Mars, now. Millions of miles are the new hundreds of miles.
Written by the largely unknown Hedy West (who’s uncreditted here), the song is a mournful but stirring ballad about displacement, with lyrics such as “If you miss the train I’m on, you will know that I am gone, you can hear the whistle blow a hundred miles.”
Its potency has endured since then. In 1989, Philadelphia’s The Hooters updated the song with biting rock edge and new, politically charged lyrics keyed to China’s Tiananmen Square uprising of that year. Peter, Paul and Mary even sang on it.
“A hundred tanks along the square, one man stands and stops them there, someday soon the tide’ll turn and I’ll be free.”
Now Heart gets their shot — and scores a bullseye with a nod to the ’60s lyrics, but with a galvanizing new rock edge.
“If the 59 is gone, that’s the train that I am on, you can hear the whistle blow a million miles,” Ann sings powerfully as the song ripples and rings with urgency and rock intensity.
It just goes to show that strong music stays strong, regardless of the year, especially when it provides such interpretations as this.
Thanks, Heart. You’ve helped keep my world rocking since the ’70s — and you still are with this strong album.
As for your worthiness for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame after this week’s nomination, two words: No brainer.
— Bruce Westbrook