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It was roughly 12 years ago when local producer Rick Harte started
promising an album called The Ace of Hearts Story. It would
be the definitive summary of Ace of Hearts, the influential label
that Harte has run since 1979, and would include the aces he's been
holding up his sleeve: the famous unreleased tracks by the Neighborhoods,
Mission of Burma, the Del Fuegos, and others.
Never known as the fastest worker in town, Harte outdid himself with
this album; a few eras of local music went by and it never appeared.
For a time, "When The Ace of Hearts Story comes
out" became a local in-joke meaning "When Hell freezes over."
Hell will get at least a little cooler next week, when Ace of Hearts
releases The Wasted Years (it's
due in stores Tuesday). Harte points out that it isn't the same as
The Ace of
Hearts Story,which would be a greatest-hits collection (none of the
label's hits - Burma's "Academy Fight Song," the Neighborhoods' "Prettiest
Girl," the Lyres' "Help You Ann" - is on
The Wasted Years). But
it finally brings those rarities to light, along with a sampling of
the overlooked material that the label's released in the past five
years. If not the full story, The Wasted Years is
at least the long-promised Ace of Hearts compilation
"It's not a compilation;
it's a concept album," Harte corrected me at his Back Bay office last
week. "I call it a weave and a flow of 23 songs, and it tells the
story of a more indulgent, less careful time. There was a time when
you wouldn't think twice about staving out all night, or driving to
New York to see Mission of Burma play for 45 minutes. I'm not saying
the music's over, but that era is over, and I'm trying to tell a story
with this thing."
Harte's as qualified as anyone to make an audio documentarv of the
local-music experience, but the surprise about The Wasted Years
is how heavy
an album it is. Rather than a celebration of local history, this is
Harte's journey through the past darkly.
There are few completely upbeat tracks on the disc, and it's the despairing
mood that ties the old and new music together - whether that means
the Del Fuegos weaving through a cover of the Everly Brothers' "Crying
in the Rain" (one of the long-buried songs that Harte recorded in
1.986 with the original trio line-up) or Chaotic
Past telling the story of a doomed couple on "Bondage Between
the Mountains" ("When we met we were drinking, there was laughter
everywhere/We found our place for a while, we were happy there").
There's more. The Neighborhoods' "Innocence Lost" (which would have
been the follow-up single to "Prettiest Girl" if management problems
hadn't come up) isn't the carefree punk pop that the original band
were known for but a mid-tempo number deep with foreboding - a surprise,
since David Minehan wrote the oldand-jaded lyric when he was all of
19. The Nervous Eaters contribute a haunting song about a sex crime;
the Lyres are represented by their spookiest-
number, Roky Erickson's "We Sell Soul." (Harte says this last one
came from the "most fucked recording session ever." For one thing,
Jeff Conolly fired his guitarist midway through the recording and
held things up while he hired someone else.) Burma's rare B-side
"Max Ernst" wraps up the CD, but it' preceded by two certified weepers:
Chaotic Past's "Side by Side"
and John Felice's"I'll Never Sing This Song Again." The latter is
one of the best songs the former Real Kid has written - and perhaps
the most bitter kiss off that a local rocker has ever addressed to
the local circuit.
Many of the tracks are gems - Mission of Burma's
"Progress" is a genuine lost treasure - and everything's worth hearing,
except maybe two songs by the horribly pretentious Wild
Stares. The disc serves to vindicate Harte's more recent productions
(in particular, Tomato Monkey' grown-up punk
'its incomfortably with the oldies) and to offer a darker-than-usual
view of local history.
"It didn't exactly strike me that way," Harte says in response. "But
you know,that was a deep and heavy time. I had to start the disc with
something slow, because it gets pretty harsh there for a while,with
things like 'Mostly Torso' (Tomato Monkey's
hardcore homage). I wouldn't call it sad; severe is more the word
I'm looking for."
Harte himself is doing fine, even if his label is considerably less
visible than it was 10 years ago. Blame that on his obsessive perfectionism
(The Wasted Years was
delayed a couple weeks so that the "A" on the label could be the right
shade of red),or on his running the label almost singlehandedly, or
on his occasional habit of spending more time reissuing an album than
he spent making it in the first place.He guards his catalogue like
a treasure,and he's spent years maintaining it while the likes of
Taang!. CherryDisc, and Monolyth have been out in the trenches competing
for the hot new bands.
"I haven't been looking for those sort of groups; I've been busy keeping
Ace of Hearts stable," he says. "I still work with artists I think
are good and have something to offer. But until recenty the catalogue
has been in a shambles, and if I didn't get things organized, that
would mean everything I did was for no purpose."
Still, The Wasted Years is
getting more advance buzz than anything he's done in a decade, and
he plans to keep it going with more reissues (like the now-scarce
Neats album) and more new signings. And there's one more thing: he
swears to God that The Ace of Hearts Story is
on the way.
By Brett Milano