The Honest Heart Collective's Inner Fire Burns Bright on 'More Harm'

BY Adam FeibelPublished Oct 7, 2021

In December of 2017, the Honest Heart Collective were three hours out of their hometown of Thunder Bay on their way to play a show in London, Ont., when they hit a patch of black ice on the Trans-Canada Highway and, for a few very long seconds, thought they were about to die. Their van barrel-rolled into the ditch, turning it into a wreck of twisted metal and shattered glass. Mercifully, the band members themselves were mostly unharmed.

This near-death experience was, by all accounts, a transformative moment for the members of this independent rock 'n' roll band from northern Ontario. That didn't have time to reveal itself in the group's excellent 2018 album Grief Rights — which was already written and mostly recorded by then — but it weighs heavily here on their third effort More Harm. If your life can suddenly end at any second, how do you make the most of it right now?

"Are we ever gonna get it right?" Ryan MacDonald sings in the anthemic "11/17," named after the highway that threatened to take their lives. "I'll never forget when we ran straight off the road / In the dead of winter where even that night bled cold," he concludes. "And I've never felt something so bitter before / But the funny thing is the cold doesn't bother me much anymore." There's a resilience here that guides, but also a fight against a pervading sense of numbness that serves as the record's primary theme. More Harm? Bring it on.

"I'm okay, don't you mind / Life's been great, I'm just tired / Though my eyes can barely hide that there's no fire," MacDonald sings in "I Heard You're Worried About Me," another of the big, upbeat folk-rocky songs that are the band's calling card. It's not just him, either: "Well you say you're fine / But I don't believe it," he sings a few songs later on "Fine." The band has always used raw feeling as a rallying cry. In classic Springsteen style, these songs are lyrically dark yet rousingly hopeful. They're imbued with pain, worry and the feeling of fleeting youth, but they sound like joy, belief and vitality. The Honest Heart Collective could be the Ted Lasso of Canadian rock 'n' roll, trying to put forward a brave face of comfort and kindness despite teetering on the brink of a breakdown. All of their energy is devoted to not feeling defeated.

In "Linework," tattoos are a permanent reminder of the impermanence of young love: "Though the ink may fade, our hearts stay the same / But it's a little too late now." "So what do you want the last thing that they say about you to be?" he asks on "Funeral," a power ballad set at the wake of a former partner's grandfather. Then there's "If You Wanna Leave," an uncharacteristically sassy song about a lover who's become all too accepting of heartbreak. "If you wanna leave, well there's the door," MacDonald howls as the band plays with the four-on-the-floor stomp of "American Slang" but also the bluesy swagger of Joan Jett, making it one of the band's most different (and therefore most interesting) songs in their set.

Produced by Derek Hoffman (Arkells, the Darcys, the Trews), who also worked on Grief Rights, More Harm is another short-and-sweet LP that caters to the Honest Heart Collective's strengths. They're drawing on a tried-and-true formula for heartland rock — think of the E Street Band or Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, but with the lingering punk-rock origins of the Gaslight Anthem, the Replacements and the Menzingers — complete with confessional lyrics, a rousing, rural twang and campfire chords amped up with the punchy crunch of a Telecaster. The band is sturdy and dynamic, and guitarist Kevin Heerema has a knack for riffing away without distracting from the melodic hooks.

It's also highly quotable, and for all these reasons the band should have no problem holding a crowd in the palm of their hands. The band's music might also come off as overly sentimental, but as Norm McDonald once said, "If something is true, it is not sentimental," and the band speaks hard truths more than they speak in platitudes.

Notably, More Harm closes a chapter in the Honest Heart Collective's story, as represented visually in the album's artwork: The fiery cabin was inspired by the old abandoned home shown on the cover of Grief Rights, which itself featured the denim vest from 2015's Liar's Club slung over a chair. Maybe it sometimes feels like life has gone up in flames. But rather than fleeing from the burning building, the band run heroically into the blaze to save what's worth saving.

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