For most people the mention of the North American rock group Heart conjures up images of 80s big hair, slickly produced power-ballads, and extravagant promotional videos.
Indeed, until a couple of years ago that was also my conception of Heart. I was aware of their previous "incarnation" in the 1970s, but had not taken the trouble to explore that period of their career in any major depth.
When I heard Dreamboat Annie, their 1976 debut album, I was completely taken aback by its level of quality and invention. At the time, Ann and Nancy Wilson were hailed as the "female Led Zeppelin", but there is much more to them than that.
Dreamboat Annie could be justly described as a concept album of sorts, with common threads being provided by the vibe and mood (and delicate instrumentation) of the acoustic numbers and the three versions of the title track which span the song list.
The overall feel is one of "light and shade", with the subtler and quieter acoustic moments interspersed with rockier, grittier sections. That said, my abiding feeling about the album is that it is a series of "mood pieces" rather than a straight-ahead rock album.
In terms of influences, yes there are echoes of Zeppelin in there, but also nods to Californian rock, particularly Neil Young, and even psychedelic bands such as Jefferson Airplane.
The album opens with "Magic Man", which would be categorised as mainstream rock, but is tuneful and immaculately crafted, in keeping with the rest of Dreamboat Annie. Indeed, it is the imaginative arrangements and production which make this such an unusual album.
Next, we are treated to a first taste of the title track, and perhaps the first indication of the purity of Ann Wilson's voice, which is a hallmark throughout.
"Crazy On You" is one of the standout tracks, with its distinctive acoustic guitar introduction, and its deceptively complex tune. The song is also a showcase for Ann Wilson's vocal versatility and range, as she alternates between delicacy in the verses and more power in the choruses. There is also pleasing interplay between acoustic and electric guitars, another feature of this whole LP.
The fourth track, "Soul Of The Sea", is perhaps the most affecting of the mood-pieces. Nautical references and atmospheres are another thread in some of the songs. The middle-section contains the most overtly Led Zeppelin-esque sequence on the entire album, reminiscent of the folky songs on Zep's third and fourth albums. Ann's vocal phrasing is also strikingly similar to that of Robert Plant, but this is not necessarily a criticism! The carefully layered backing tracks on this song are beautifully done, and never cloy.
On we move to "Dreamboat Annie" itself. The group employs some unusual (for rock music) instruments on this cut, including banjo, and what sounds to me like a glockenspiel. Just another instance of a diverse palette being used to enrich the sonic landscape, and one of the virtues of this album as a whole.
"White Lightning and Wine" is another of the heavier items on Dreamboat Annie, although it has a more rootsy guitar sound than the others. In different circumstances this could have been a "meat and potatoes" track, but the talent and personality of Ann Wilson elevate it above the merely ordinary.
Perhaps the prettiest of all the tracks is "(Love Me Like Music) I'll Be Your Song", which has a lovely tune, and beautifully soothing vocals and harmonies. Once again, the finesse of the backing track, and the understated production, work superbly.
By contrast, "Sing Child" possesses the most outlandish guitar effects on the album, and a strikingly effective flute part. Of all the songs, this contains the most deviations and stylistic shifts, and is a good counterpoint to the many gentler moments. Yet another indication of the care lavished on the production.
"How Deep It Goes" features more intricate acoustic picking, and crystalline vocals. This is a song which exemplifies the vaguely ethereal and dreamy ambience of the whole album, with some unexpected melodic turns, and hooks.
And so we finish with the Reprise of "Dreamboat Annie". Again, a variation from the other two versions, with a slightly different tempo, and more piano-intensive. The classically tinged parts are almost baroque in flavour.
There we have it, then, for my money one of the most under-rated albums of its era. Even more impressive when one realises that it was their debut effort. I would recommend it to pop/rock music-lovers across the board. It is one of those records which, once listened to properly, commands instant admiration and respect.