Cross-country collaborations with punk-rock legends are nothing new for Sam Locke Ward. His glorious work with Mike Watt (Minutemen, fIREHOSE, etc.) under the SLW cc Watt moniker has been covered in this publication before. At the same time those albums were unleashed on an unsuspecting public, Ward made contact with Half Japanese founder Jad Fair, whose plans for 2021 centered on putting out one hundred (!!!) albums in a year’s time. Fair’s own pedigree is impressive, having worked with Daniel Johnston, Thurston Moore, Richard Hell, Moe Tucker, Teenage Fanclub and John Zorn among many distinguished others. The two began a “pen-pal” project, sending tracks back and forth between Iowa City and Austin, Texas at the slightly less grueling pace of one complete song per week.
Kill Rock Stars has just released the result: a dizzy, woozy, sugar-sweet collection of love songs fittingly named Happy Hearts. With 17 songs filling a 40-minute runtime, Happy Hearts fits neatly onto two sides of translucent yellow vinyl, and it feels positively “normal” after the maximum minimalism of Ward’s last album, the 9-minute, 40 song masterpiece Bubblegum Necropolis. Brevity is still key here, but the bouncy optimism could hardly be further from that album’s rage, tension and musical chaos.
Ward’s 2021 and 2022 releases felt like a means of venting the desperation and anger stirred up in Iowa during and before the plague years; the American nightmare set to music. Fair has a different vision: the glory of love. Their press release sums it up perfectly: “Happy Hearts is a very positive album,” says Fair. “It’s good to stay positive.”
The album is a rather askew take on that ancient touchstone of popular song, twisted at times in its unabashed moon-in-June bubbliness. Fair’s lyrics could have been scrawled in a notebook by a lovestruck middle-schooler. Some memorable lines: “A little bird whispers ‘She’s the one,’ go to her, it’s time for love”; “Cupid got me, and got me good, his arrow shot me right where it should … thank you Cupid, thank you pal!”; and a personal favorite: “It’s as easy as eating cherry pie or falling off a log; three wishes from a magic fish, or a magic frog.”
This is the intoxication stage of love set to music; the state of being too zonked on hormones to drive, awash in pastel colors and soft synthesizers. It’s the soundtrack to making reckless decisions, like matching neck tattoos or moving to Indiana, all for that darling one. The effect is so over-the-top that one wonders where the bit starts, or ends; the tone is somewhere between the stoned innocence of “Don’t Laugh, I Love You” by Ween and the deep satire of “Our Wedding” by Crass, or nightclub music in a David Lynch movie. It almost feels like there’s something wrong with it.
Ward’s music evokes everything from Sunday morning televangelist programs to ‘80s homecoming dances to wine-bar acoustics to straight-up punk rock. Used with extreme restraint, his familiar punk-styled vocals are all the more hilarious in their light application. The music becomes more ominous and at times even atonal by the album’s end, but the mood of celebration remains: celebration of living and laughing and loving and sweet, sweet junk food. More collaborations have been promised; they are awaited with great interest.
This article was originally published in Little Village’s March 2023 issues.