Lone Album from the Exploding Hearts Gets Expanded Reissue

Even 20 years on, Guitar Romantic still sounds timeless

The Exploding Hearts (Image: Third Man Records)

When the Exploding Hearts released their lone album Guitar Romantic 20 years ago, they displayed all their influences proudly while creating a distinct and memorable sound.

The record seems as if it could have been made any time in the previous few decades, except the moment it actually was. The mix of retro music and idiosyncratic creativity made the album an instant hit in certain circles. Blending punk, power pop and traditional rock ‘n’ roll allowed the band to swerve between playfulness and sincerity without ever betraying a central, well defined aesthetic. An expanded and remastered version commemorating the album’s 20th anniversary reveals a work that holds up, its timeless use of the past persisting well into its own future.

“Modern Kicks” gets right to it, hinting at the Buzzcocks and The Jam as vocalist Adam Cox leans into a British delivery. There’s no mod con here, though, as he puts all his feelings on display. He’s lovelorn – the Exploding Hearts do late adolescence perfectly – for a woman who doesn’t care about all the breaking hearts. He puns on the word “kick” throughout, and if he can’t find joy, he’ll go off and get high, leaving it all behind. Unless, of course, the girl needs him after all. It all comes with joyful guitar hook to secure everything in place.

The band follows up with piece of pop perfection, “I’m a Pretender.” With some bubblegum punk melodies, the Exploding Hearts’ greatest earworm settles in to stay. When Cox sings that he’s “21 and it ain’t no fun,” he sums up an entire part of life. That transition into adulthood can pose its own problems, and the Hearts have no interest in posturing; few bands would sing about their refusal to go back home with their romantic interest. The track succeeds because it sounds less about the singer’s own incompetence and more about the universal experience of trying in the face of uncertainty, even the uncertainty of how to try. He may be a pretender, but he doesn’t have to fake the longing.

The moment lingers, as the band shows no desire to complete their personal maturation. Guitar Romantic revels in its own youthful struggles. You can only sniff glue and wear leather jackets for so long, and the band intends to stretch it out (for about a half hour anyway). “Sleeping Aides and Razorblades” dramatizes the hurt of breakup after such a fun time “going steady,” itself a phrase that spins the album back in time. The track holds one of the album’s Ramones-related easter eggs, an allusion to a “lobotomy,” and it hints at the sort of recklessness available only through a mix of nostalgia and general guardrails.

Exploding Hearts Guitar Romantic, Third Man Records 2003/2023

“Jailbird” brings in layers of the Hearts’ tradition. The melody and the vocal arrangement springs from ’50s rock ‘n’ roll, but only as reinterpreted by the Ramones. The mood fits a song that’s more or less safe. The singer may be a jailbird, but he’s no teenage criminal (or at least not exactly), because he’s imprisoned for someone’s love. The mock dangerousness feels like the terror of Riverdale and not a true threat, but the band makes sure the characters get too weird to be that safe. The song opens with glue sniffing – likely a nod to the Ramones – and features woman talking to and then kissing a squirrel. The track has all the pleasure of golden rock ‘n’ roll, a touch of ’60s nuggets, the comfortable danger of  leather-jacketed ’70s pop rockers, and turns it all into something highly specific to the Exploding Hearts.

This new reissue fills out our knowledge of the band just a little, adding a new mix of “I’m a Pretender” (but, really the fuzzier, the better for this one), “Busy Signals,” and “So Bored,” the latter two cuts that appeared on the Shattered compilation. It’s unfortunate that we don’t have more of this kind of material, ideally a live show or some outtakes, but that lack remains a tragic part of the band’s story. Just a few months after the release of Guitar Romantic, the Exploding Hearts’ van crashed, killing three of its members. Guitarist Terry Six survived, and later joined members of the like-minded Riffs to form the Nice Boys. The group carried on the sound and style, but never quite caught on (the music never reached the heights of Guitar Romantic, but it also came with the biographical baggage).

From a current perspective, it can still be hard to listen to the album without the tragedy creeping in, but Guitar Romantic should be remembered as a jubilant triumph. The Exploding Hearts’ depiction of a particular age and kind of life animated their recordings, and that personality remains indefatigable even as the years pass. It shouldn’t take an anniversary to pull this one off the shelf, but celebrating 20 years is more than enough reason to give it some repeated spins.




Justin Cober-Lake

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Justin Cober-Lake

Justin Cober-Lake, based in central Virginia, has worked in publishing for the past 15 years. His editing and freelance writing has focused mostly on cultural criticism, particularly pop music. You can follow him on Twitter @jcoberlake.

One thought on “Lone Album from the Exploding Hearts Gets Expanded Reissue

  • June 16, 2023 at 2:08 pm

    Wonderful take. I’ve been lucky to see them multiple times. Really solid people as well. Give The Cry a listen to. Another Portland pop rock band. They actually cover the exploding hearts


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