04/02/2013 05:10 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Broken Mirrors And A Bloody Nose: The Legacy Of The Exploding Hearts' Guitar Romantic

By Alex Koenig

The Exploding Hearts sought to finish what their punk forefathers started. The Portland quartet donned ripped blue jeans and disheveled haircuts. They wrote songs about love and sniffing glue. The amplifier volume of their live shows rivaled Spinal Tap's level-eleven audacity. Their 2003 Dirtnap Records debut Guitar Romantic was a triumph of immaculate taste, coupling the pivotal power-pop of Nick Lowe with the cutthroat aggression of the Clash.

That summer, the Hearts were asked to play at the Harvard Lampoon building, where Conan O'Brien had performed the year before and the Strokes the year before that. To conclude the trip, the band headlined a last-minute show at Thee Parkside in San Francisco. At closing time, the venue's management pulled the plug on the PA mid-song, but the crowd was chanting the lyrics so loudly the Hearts didn't require microphones. The band was being eyed by major labels and seemed poised to live up to their vertiginous hype.

Alas, they never got the chance, and therein lay a key component of the Exploding Hearts' legacy. When the band left San Francisco for home in late July, Adam Cox, Matt Fitzgerald, and Jeremy Gage were killed in a car accident. Only one member of the band survived -- guitarist Terry Six. With ten years evaporated, the aftermath of the Hearts' tragedy is still too painful to fully articulate, but fortunately Guitar Romantic remains shrouded in dirtbag garage rock vitality.

Adam Cox was the rare breed of a frontman--one of the few who could sneer but still sound sincere. "I'm A Pretender," co-written with his songwriting partner King Louie Bankston, is the exemplary anti-love track. "Just give me one chance baby, help me shatter my heart," Cox croons in the song's bridge, too concerned with capturing authenticity to worry about sounding "cool." The album's penultimate track, "Jailbird," finds him excising adolescent angst with poetic precision as he pleads with his girlfriend to stop inhaling Elmer's paste: "The neon lights and cotton candy skies couldn't bring you down from those highs."

Lead guitarist Terry Six is the closest thing we have to a Johnny Thunders of his generation, his bluesy, bubblegum riffs thrust into the red with feral intensity. The napalm blast of opener "Modern Kicks" might be his finest hour, with Six rattling off a chugging twelve-bar progression before careening into punchy guitar squalls for good measure. Bassist Matt Fitzgerald and drummer Jeremy Gage were an integral rhythm section, propelling the melodies to a higher echelon instead of striving for flash.

For those uninitiated to the group but looking for a point of reference, a close aural companion to the Hearts' fervid anthems would be Weezer's libido-fueled opus, Pinkerton. But whereas Rivers Cuomo's blue-balled deluges were cornerstones for emo, the Hearts aimed to extract heart-rending nostalgia out of seemingly commonplace events. Fittingly, the most endearing gems on Guitar Romantic read like 3 a.m. diary confessionals. Witness the syrupy storytelling in "Sleeping Aides and Razorblades": "Sleeping aides and razorblades, tear-stained pictures of younger days / Broken mirrors and a bloody nose, late night TV re-run episodes."

There's no easy way to curtail the malaise of heartbreak, but the Exploding Hearts were able to soften the blow. Lone surviving member Six released only one new album in 2006 with the Nice Boys since the accident, and while we hope his zest for composition is still intact, it's worth noting that he has nothing left to prove. Akin to the aggrieved anarchists the Sex Pistols, the Exploding Hearts managed to leave an indelible impact with just one album. Although it'd be a stretch to say that Hearts captured the cultural zeitgeist the way the Pistols did, in many ways they created something greater: a primal tour de force of youthful love and anguish deep enough to cherish forever.

Check out all the lyrics & explanations for the Exploding Hearts' Guitar Romantic on Stereo IQ:

1. The Exploding Hearts - Modern Kicks Lyrics
2. The Exploding Hearts - I'm A Pretender Lyrics
3. The Exploding Hearts - Thorns In Roses Lyrics
4. The Exploding Hearts - You're Black And Blue Lyrics
5. The Exploding Hearts - Sleeping Aides And Razorblades Lyrics
6. The Exploding Hearts - Rumours In Town Lyrics
7. The Exploding Hearts - Throwaway Style Lyrics
8. The Exploding Hearts - Boulevard Trash Lyrics
9. The Exploding Hearts - Jailbird Lyrics
10. The Exploding Hearts - Still Crazy Lyrics