Only Thieves – Heartless Romantics (album)

Only Thieves - Heartless Romantics coverHeartless Romantics, the debut full-length release from Tallahassee, Florida’s Only Thieves, opens almost as it intends to go on. ‘All the Sad Young Men’, the warm, melodic opening track, has all of the key ingredients of the rest of the record: there are some good hooks embedded in it, it has a sound inspired by classic punk/early alt rock outfits like The Replacements but with more modern sensibilities, and it even ends with little bit of rock & roll attitude when singer Jeremy Barnes abandons the chorus refrain with a is-it-isn’t-it-nonchalant “ah, fuck it.”

The problem is that compared to much of the rest of the album its hooks are blunter and struggle to find purchase; without much emotional resonance it ends up sounding a little plodding; and even the potentially powerful lyrics and vocals fall short of the target thanks to a fairly uninspired chorus.

Fortunately, that opener is a bit of an aberration: it’s followed by the much catchier ‘Discoveries’ which does a lot more with ingredients that are, if anything, a bit simpler than its predecessor; a simple chord progression and effective melody make it. The more varied lyrics and backing vocals don’t go amiss either. This in turn is followed by ‘Flood Lights’, where an edge of fragility creeps into those otherwise-swaggering vocals. The song itself is a 1-2 stomper driven by a taut drumbeat and and restrained bass. The harmonica is an effective addition, too, lending the song a more classic sense of 80s Americana; if the song has a flaw it’s that at four and a half minutes it’s overlong.

Elsewhere the band aren’t afraid to let their influences hold them back from experimenting and having a bit of off-piste fun, as evidenced by ‘Unsatisfied’, a dancey punk tune with twitchy riffs that remind me of local Brighton outfit Telegraphs. Barnes’ lyrics also have some strong highpoints, as with ‘The Ballad’, a tongue-in-cheek song that intertwines two metaphors with deliberate ambiguity: is the subject of the singer’s adoration a girl, or a car?

There are a few other tracks that have a tang of filler; ‘Bricks’, a mid-paced rocker, and ‘What’s Wrong’, a tune that reminds occasionally of The Hold Steady. But such instances are still generally entertaining enough to sustain the record’s pace; what can be a problem for that is the tendency for the songs to keep going for so long that their component parts, thrilling in small doses, begin to wear out their welcome. Overall, though, Heartless Romantics is a catchy bit of punk-rock power-pop saturated in Americana that does exactly what the title suggests.

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