Heart - Strange Euphoria (box set) (Sony/Legacy) review Never has a box set so perfectly captured the spirit of a band.
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The goal of most multi-disc collections is to sum up a band’s career by including hit singles and key album tracks, while throwing in a handful of rarities. The problem is, the only people that usually buy box sets are the true fans, who already own most of this material. That’s what makes Strange Euphoria, the new 3-CD / 1-DVD collection from Heart, so enjoyable. Lovingly compiled by founding members Ann & Nancy Wilson, who understand that this is meant for the true fan - and they deliver.
This set comes off more like a scrapbook than a mere compilation, featuring track by track notes from both sisters, and a booklet which contains color photos and memorabilia that help further tell the story of Heart. Then, there’s the music.
While most of their familiar songs are here, many of them are featured in some sort of alternate form. Absolutely stunning is the demo version of “Magic Man,” featuring just guitar and a very young Ann Wilson, sounding not quite sure of herself as of yet. Equally good is an early band take of “Crazy on You,” which doesn’t yet have the big studio sheen of the released rendition. “Barracuda” is a live performance from the BBC, which is played at a much faster speed than the studio version, sounding like a freight train ready to come off the rails.
Carefully chosen album cuts show how diverse the Wilson sisters’ influences range - from the mandolin-led “Sylvan Song,” to the acoustic, orchestrated “Nada One,” to the beautiful, passionate “Sweet Darlin’.” They’ve also cleverly strung together the several versions of “Dreamboat Annie,” from their debut album, into one single track.
The band went through some dark times in the early Eighties, but the gentle “Angels,” off the mostly-forgotten Private Audition album, shows they were still capable of greatness. The mid-Eighties saw Heart’s comeback, but it didn’t come without a price. For one thing, we’re reminded of how little Ann & Nancy actually wrote of this hit material (both of their number one hits, “These Dreams,” and “Alone,” were written by outside songwriters). And, much of what did become popular during this time is now hopelessly dated with “Big Eighties” production sound. To combat this, they’ve included a version of “Never,” featuring a string quartet arranged by none other than John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin. And, just because they were using outside help for their hits, doesn’t mean that Ann & Nancy weren’t still writing great material - it’s just that a lot of it never got released. Take the demo for “Unconditional Love,” which has a very soulful groove, with background harmonies that recall the Bangles. Curiously absent is any mention of the Brigade album from 1990, which yielded four hit singles, but was perhaps the pinnacle of excess.
The “hit” years end by disc two, and it's disc three where things get really interesting. Featuring cuts by the Wilsons’ side project the Lovemongers, solo cuts, and even songs attributed simply to “Ann & Nancy,” these are of surprisingly high quality. But, they also show off sides of the duo that we haven’t seen before. Take, for example, the blistering blues of “Love or Madness,” which gives Nancy a chance to show off her tremendous harmonica skills. That’s followed by the dance-beat of “Skin To Skin,” something you wouldn’t expect from a hard rock band like Heart.
The real treat is the DVD, featuring a live appearance of the band from early 1976 on a Washington University TV station, before their debut album or any singles were released in America. Ann introduces “Magic Man” by saying “we’re from Vancouver, Canada and we’re just starting to ooze across the border.” This fantastic concert clocks in a just under an hour and showcases just how potent they were live. Especially good is a ferocious rendition of “Crazy on You,” including Nancy on the acoustic beginning, “Silver Wheels.” Ann is mesmerizing in her command of the stage, and the interplay between guitarists Nancy, Roger Fisher and multi-instrumentalist Howard Leese is stunning. There are a few parts that date the material - especially the opener, titled “Pre Show” - it’s just an instrumental jam featuring Ann on flute and Leese playing some very cheesy, way-out keyboards. The track sounds a lot more like something Emerson, Lake & Palmer might concoct. However, there are some examples of blistering hard rock on cuts like “Devil Delight.” The audio is mono, but acceptable for the time, and is a great addition to the box set.
If you’re looking for a collection that highlights all of Heart’s hits, this isn’t it - try The Essential Heart instead. But, if you already own those songs and want to dig a little deeper, Strange Euphoria offers a lot of hidden treasures, and is surprisingly solid from start to finish. --Tony Peters