Hether Fortune, the California-based singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and, this time around, sole member of Wax Idols will be releasing her 3rd full-length, the post-punk, pop-noir American Tragic, October 16th on Collect Records. If that record label rings a non-musical bell, it’s because its founder, Geoff Rickly (ex-Thursday, No Devotion), became an unwitting participant in the recent Martin Shkreli scandal. When Geoff was getting Collect Records off the ground, Martin presented himself as a super-fan of Thursday who wanted to become a patron of Geoff’s business venture, operating like an angel investor with a hands-off approach to the company. It turns out that Martin was a devil in disguise, at least in his own pharmaceutical business practices, when he jacked up the price of the anti-parasitic drug Daraprim astronomically and wouldn’t totally back down in the face of massive public outrage.
Needless to say, Geoff and the artists on his label were completely blindsided by Martin’s actions and the subsequent media backlash, and Geoff quickly severed ties with Martin regarding Collect Records. Heather and the other artists on the label were very vocal in their disgust with Martin and their support for Geoff, with Hether stating on Facebook “I knew that Geoff would walk away from this guy, as he never would’ve been involved with him in the first place had he known what he was capable of.” In a strange ‘life imitating art’ twist of fate that relates to Hether’s forthcoming album, she goes on to say that “The irony of this album being called American Tragic and being linked to a financially opportunistic greed monger living a double life as an altruistic patron of the arts is not lost on me.”
For a while all of this controversy overshadowed the fact that Geoff, as part of No Devotion, just released a new album, and Hether is gearing up to bow American Tragic. Now that the unexpected storm has blown over, it’s time to shine a light on Hether’s forthcoming album. She wrote and recorded everything except the drums this time out, with Rachel Travers providing an assist on that instrument. Hether co-produced American Tragic with Monte Vallier (Mark Eitzel, The Soft Moon, Vaniish) and it’s a deeply personal exploration of her range of emotions in the aftermath of her recent traumatic divorce. It’s also highly universal in its themes of human connection and independence, the American dream and nightmare, creation and destruction, and abandonment and survival.
Hether waxes directly, vividly, and perceptively upon the wake of a ruptured relationship, and her cutting to triumphant lyrics will hit home with anyone who has gone through this emotionally painful process. Hether develops a connection between herself and the listener via her words and emotions which shine brightly amid the gloomy to bracing pop/rock stylistic trappings. Sonically, Hether marries the rough, foreboding tone of post-rock with the melodic moodiness of pop-noir, creating catchy, but not too polished, tunes that for the most part engage the ear. Due to the pop song format being Hether’s chosen mode of transmission, however, she’s had to pare down and repeat her words to some extent in order to fit this limited structure. Lyrical content alternates between complexity and simplicity, with a diminished emotional impact made with the phrases that are intoned repeatedly on some songs. Certain tracks also have an unfinished feel to their endings; they just peter out or stop abruptly.
Hether stirs up a menacing, but alluring atmosphere on album-opener “A Violent Transgression”, starting off with the cavernous reverberations of pounded rock as the beat, low-rumbling synths, and sizzling guitar vibrations on the verses. Hether materializes like a hovering spirit, drawing out her sing-talking vocals in an ominous tone as she acknowledges the human trait of “desire… to annihilate.” The chorus kicks in with the addition of a light drum beat, higher pitched, pulsating electro-notes, the shouted, incongruously perky line “Hey, it’s violence!”, and Hether seductively stringing out the word “desire”.
Melancholically upbeat lead single “Lonely You” dives right into the Verse, Chorus, Verse, alt-pop pool with its sweeping strum of slightly warped guitar chime that recalls Cocteau Twins and scintillating The Cure-like synths. Hether is in full-swing singing mode on this track, rewarding the listener with an engaging emotional richness. “Lonely You” captures her contradictory trajectory towards self-empowerment after her break-up, commencing with a reflection upon “…our love’s demise…”, then traversing the barren fields of “Love is just a faded dream / that I cannot remember…”, peaking with her longing admission of “…wanting for you still.”, and finally having the personal strength to move on with the uplifting brush-off “Dust to dust / Away with you”.
Ballad-paced, but completely compelling third single “I’m Not Going” veers into Western noir territory with its contemplative, Twin Peaks-like synths and deep reverb guitar. Hether lays herself bare on her sing-talking vocals, intoning starkly “American tragic / twisted magic…” and that “I am being punished for my dreams.” She suddenly drops a little hip-pop flow into the mix on the first verse-chorus bridge and is boosted vocally by shadowy to striking vocal back-up as she declares fiercely and repeatedly on the chorus “No, I’m not going down.” It may be a simple mantra, but it effectively says it all. “Goodbye Baby” drives further down dark, deserted roads, conjuring up “Down By The Water” by PJ Harvey at the start with its short-phrase verses and mirrored background vocals. It continues “I’m Not Going”’s kick-ass kiss-off, extending it with further with the steely proclamation “You know I gave it all I had / I won’t let you turn my good heart bad.” As Hether pushes out her words forcefully, the song whips up an invigorating brew of burning guitar lines, pronounced plucks of strings, and a slammin’ drum beat.
The proverbial other woman appears to be named on the swiftly flowing, retro-80s tune “Deborah”, which ruminates upon the beginning of the break-up. Hether bemoans the fact that “…your love only took me down…” and “…I can’t wait ‘til I forget you exist…” in a soft, fluid tone. Scarred, hopefully only temporarily, by her loss, she opines “…now it comes as no surprise / at every beginning I only see the end.” Limpid guitar chime and a fleet beat attempt to alleviate the weighty emotional burden, but they are stymied by a brief, but out of place, stylistic departure into rap and the excessive repetition of the word “Deborah” throughout the song.
Hether takes another detour on “Glistens”, this time coolly conquering dance-pop with her Debbie Harry-like cooing cry on the rapid vocal run-through of the “I don’t wanna know why.” chorus. The lyrics take a back seat for the most part, while the sound gleams broodingly with an eerie, winding synth line, jags of growling guitars, glowing keyboard notes, snappy percussive clacks, and a lightly thumping beat. The bright, up-tempo number “Severely Yours” belies the austere nature of Hether’s lyrics as she delves into the extremes of pleasure and pain, control and surrender, and love and self-sacrifice. In contrast to the potent lyrics, she sings in a lighter, pop-star tone amid briskly strummed acoustic guitar, sporadically romping bass line, shaken percussion, and kinetic drum beat.
“At Any Moment” is another speedily-paced, pop-oriented tune, riding high on flute-like synth burbles, a running bass line, skittering percussion, and a fast-smacked beat. Hether celebrates her independence in a plush, but clipped tone, throwing back decisively “Didn’t I tell you this could die?… / Didn’t I say I could walk away at any moment?” She packs in some complex, verbose lyrics on this tune in a dazzling display of word-smithing prowess. Last song “Seraph” vitalizes with reverb guitar distortion, a prominent bass line, shaken percussion, and a punchy drum beat. The guitar riff roils around Hether’s expressive, life-affirming exclamations of “…I’ll replenish myself / ‘cause I’m not nothing.” Yet even though she states she’ll “…do anything for love…”, she questions “…is my heart still here / ‘cause I can’t tell.” Hether passionately showcases how love is a double-edged sword – it can hurt when it’s lost, but it can also heal when it’s found – and in the end, she avows “I’m still burning.” Hether’s alive, she’s survived her heartbreak, and her desire to love again remains.