Long ago, we were finding out everything about each other, A Thousand Times Yes guitarist-vocalist Joe Hoffman sings in Desert of Law-Abiding Souls, off 2003s Michigan. It was the bands official debut after losing a member and leaving Lansing for Detroit; it was also a record cloaked in mythology and suggestion, from aliases for each member to a fanciful yarn that served as a band bio and teasing lyrics that reveled in misdirection (Youve got a soft leather heart! or TV screens and menopause). It has taken three years for the members of this trio to really learn everything about each other, to really discover how they want their music to look, sound and feel. In that time there were highs, lows, frustrations and realizations; there was even a somewhat lengthy hiatus. But as A Thousand Times Yes returns with a new album, the group knows the adversity has only made it stronger. Feel the burn.
This month the group releases Heart Beats, and it clarifies the promise of Michigan. The trebly chime of Daydream Nation Sonic Youth is still a touchstone for Hoffmans guitar, and the trios sensibilities still lean toward 90s indie rock, somewhere between Unwounds anxious rumble and the romantic hand-wringing of Velocity Girl. But Heart Beats is more compact, with restless, on-edge rhythms and taut melodies that draw energy from the bolder vocal presence of Hoffman and bassist-vocalist Audra Marks. Their lyrics are more direct too. Instead of veiling feeling, or arcing around a theme, A Thousand Times Yes more often than not hits it straight on.
This was a conscious decision.
We didnt want to hide behind the layers anymore, Hoffman says, settled along with his bandmates in a corner booth at Woodward Avenue Brewery in Ferndale. His Casper Van Hoffman handle is retired, as are Sparx and Lull Tucker, the respective aliases of Marks and drummer Greg Evangelista. (It wasnt a reference to [Velvet Underground] drummer Mo Tucker, Evangelista says with a laugh. I just thought it sounded cool.) [Full disclosure: Evangelista is a Metro Times employee.] Hoffman and Marks agree that on Heart Beats, their lyrics have evolved away from Michigans metaphorical approach toward something truer and more personal. Marks mentions Leaving Detroit, and how its first-person farewell to both a city and a beau is exactly what she never would have written before. Will you give me my last kiss in Detroit? she sings, and theres no imagery there, just an ultimatum. (The songs gentle insistence is pretty great too it channels the band Unrest but keeps A Thousand Times Yes usual melodic tension intact.)
Marks also sings lead on Love Song for Me and Sibling Rivalry/Sibling Love. Again, matters of the heart are on the bands mind: longing for love, fretting about it and occasionally sounding pretty pissed about getting it. But Marks pilots both tunes, whereas on Michigan she and Hoffman might have traded lines, and her strident vocals give the songs a womans point of view emotionally. Still, the songs are about the three of them too. Evangelistas drums jump into every crevice on Sibling Rivalry; Hoffman adds effectual stabs of six-string blister over Marks propulsive bass line; and the song ends with an unlikely sing-along just begging for a live crowds input. The lyrics might be personal, but the feelings are universal.
Of course, Heart Beats also has its love-hate entries, and leading the way is Hoffmans tense Modern Age, with its tricky tempos. Hope that you dont mind that I dont give a shit about your scene, he sings, and here his sighing baritone does twine in and out of Marks vocal, as they used to do on Michigan. Hope youre ready to go to our show. Theres no metaphor there, thats for sure. But while Hoffman acknowledges the reference to Detroits fractious or at least cliquey rock scene, he hears Modern Age as more of a lament, a desire for every band or genre to at least have some equal footing around town. Indie rock, punk, garage rock, whatever, he says, letting his words trail off because everyone at the table knows what he means.
Though Michigan appeared through the tiny Lansing imprint Isoxys, the members decided to release Heart Beats themselves. At the WAB, they explain how this was another conscious decision. Isoxys, run by a friend, had given them a platform on which to put out Michigan. But distribution was limited at best, and promotion was nonexistent. During their self-imposed hiatus this past fall Hoffman got married in September, Marks was preparing to take the GRE in psychology it became clear that a self-release was the better option. Just as they no longer wanted their music obscured in layers the myth-making bio on the Web site is also a memory they also wanted control over their own destiny. The booths conversation turns to endorsement of and a little bit of amazement at the power and technological ease of downloadable songs on iTunes and online social networks like MySpace. When considering labels versus the idea of going it alone, A Thousand Times Yes decided it was easier to reach a potential fan in, say, Fond du Lac, Wis., through his inbox or MySpace community than in the bin at his local record shop.
Proprietors of record stores will groan, and not without reason. But A Thousand Times sees Internet self-promotion as a way not only to build their fan base, but even book tours too. In other words, hello, Wisconsin!
Since the new record was also the first to be recorded with Detroit as the bands official home, it made sense to think locally. Heart Beats was recorded with Rob Shelby at Harmonie Park studios, and features former Back in Spades leader Stephen Palmer (contributing some particularly screedy guitar to the explosive, time-released Magic Pill) as well as Dave Feeny (Blanche, American Mars), whose pedal steel guitar aches in the backgrounds of My Sympathies and Sailors Revenge. Initially moody, the latter two songs hark most to Michigans more opaque approach. But in true Heart Beat fashion they come alive in a rush of harmony, pulsing drums and a triumph of intensity over influence. The group has been finding out everything about each other for more than five years, finding out how to make the band work. In Heart Beats concise pulse is the answer, and its all theirs. In one more local and totally cool connection, the album features cover art from famed Detroit poster artist Gary Grimshaw. Fittingly, it depicts a heart burning at a thousand degrees Fahrenheit.