Even Now, four years after the fact, the members of Careless Hearts are still amazed that they played with Stooges’ guitarist James Williamson at the Blank Club.
For Williamson it was a warm-up gig. He dropped out of the music business decades earlier, and needed to prepare himself for touring with Iggy and The Stooges. For Careless Hearts it was an unexpected, life-changing event.
They spent months with Williamson, rehearsing the songs, but also hanging out with him and listening to his stories about Iggy, David Bowie and other icons from the early ’70s.
The experience had a much bigger impact on the band than even they could have expected. They had just broken form, after all, leaving behind their Americana roots to play an entire set of The Stooges’ songs—the blueprint for punk rock—and they did it really well.
“I was rattled. How do I make sense of this? Playing rock is so fun,” says singer/guitarist Paul Kimball. “After we played with James it was hanging right out there in front of me: We need to play more rock. That’s the shit I came up on.”
Now Careless Hearts are releasing their third LP, Alum Rock—their first full-length album since playing with Williamson. They’ll celebrate its release on Friday, Nov. 29 at the Blackbird Annex. This album is completely different than their last, 2008’s Heart’s Delight, which was a country-rock album. Alum Rock has traces of country, but it’s mostly a collection of roots-rock and power-pop songs. Plus the band is heavier, looser and louder than ever before.
Playing with Williamson isn’t the only big change the band experienced since Heart’s Delight. They also lost original guitarist Derek See, who now leads local soul revue, the Bang. See is a skilled genre purist, as is evident in his work with the Bang.
“When he left, we all were looking at each other, like we don’t have to play it a certain way,” Powers says.
It wasn’t quite as simple as just playing the songs differently. They had no idea what they wanted to do or how they should do it, but it felt like a change was in order. So they just started writing and demoing a whole bunch of songs, many of which were scrapped—some reworked several times before getting thrown out.
“I have this work ethic where if I can’t intellectually work out a problem, I better just work on the next song. The ideas will work themselves out. That’s totally what happened,” Kimball says.
Shortly after See quit, they also lost their steel guitar player, Jody Clarke, further distancing them from their original country sound. Their bass player, Brian Michael, took See’s place on the guitar and they recruited Brian Dupras to replace him on bass. In that time, they continued to write more material, trying to discover what this band was now. When they wrote “The Righteous Road,” the ninth song on Alum Rock, it was transformative and eye-opening.
“When I wrote that song, I could see the whole album,” Kimball says. “There’s really no country in it, just an earnestness to it. Sometimes you write a song where it’s exactly what you meant it to be, and it felt like the path forward.”
The song is Replacements-esque in the powerful riffs and in its subtle marriage of roots-rock and punk.
Right from the album’s opening track, “Push the World” it’s obvious this is a different band. The song is a straightforward power-pop rocker, punctuated with a catchy anthemic chorus. In fact, even the lyrics go into newer, more direct territory.
“I try to write as honestly and as clearly as my courage will allow me,” Kimball says. “If I look at the stuff on Heart’s Delight, I think there’s a lot of real stuff, but filtered through fiction. For this record, I allowed myself more times to write things I didn’t understand on this record than I ever have before.”
The new album includes some fictionalized stories, but on “Come Back Home” Kimball shares, from a parental perspective, what he thinks familial love should be and the album closer, “The Last Orchard in Town,” is basically a journal entry. (“I pull my bike through the last open gate/that holds our last century’s hunger at bay/surprised by how much chain link fence keeps away.”)
On several occasions, Kimball discusses the city of San Jose—no surprise given that the album’s title, Alum Rock, shares a name with a local neighborhood. “Bascom Ave” references the well-known San Jose street, but it’s “Push the World” that really delves into the character of San Jose. (“The tenth largest city in the nation/we got a long way to go.”)
“San Jose is a complicated thing, kind of a troubled place, a place with a personality disorder,” Kimball says. “There’s a lot of really great people here doing really cool things. There’s a lot of insecurities and feelings of anxiety and resentment on what it isn’t. And all of those contradictions are fascinating to me. I relate to them. I have all these conflicts in me, too.”
Blackbird Annex, San Jose
Fri, 8pm, $5