The Upshot: Indie outfit gets a chance to revisit its alt-rock heyday and update it for the modern era—but without sacrificing the freshness and energy that must have originally marked them.
BY FRED MILLS
Everybody loves a beat-the-odds, coulda-been-a-contender comeback story, and this one’s as sweet as they come. Hailing from the late ‘80s/early ‘90s NYC alt-rock scene, the Hasbros were briefly positioned for greatness, notching a few high-profile compilation appearances and attracting both label interest and college radio airplay, but, as cofounder Bob Hanophy drily notes in his liners to this much-belated LP, “it just wasn’t meant to be,” and the band split before releasing a full-length. Old story, right?
The members went on to various endeavors—the collective C.V. includes outfits like King Missile, Red Hare, Retisonic, and Garden Variety, as well as numerous solo recordings—and then, in a combined fit of restlessness and celebrating a birthday, Hanophy put out the call for a one-off reunion gig. “Everyone agreed to play and we had a blast,” he writes. “Amazingly, it sounded better than ever before and we decided to finally record the LP that we had always wanted to.”
Ergo, Cart Before the Horse, subtitled “the difficult first record” and issued by the band’s tellingly-named label Hasbin (get it?) Music. Hanophy (guitar/vocals), along with Ken O’Connor (guitar/bass), and Joe Gorelick (drums/vocals) have clearly recaptured their sound, and I say that without even knowing what their “sound” was. One detects vestigial traces of classic ‘80s janglepop in midtempo rocker “Later On” and the somewhat R.E.M.ish opening track “For the Best,” which has a careening, soaring quality that would’ve undoubtedly made the band a college radio darling. Husker Du was also an obvious influence upon the musicians, what with the blazing, yet richly melodic “Kenny” and the equally powerhouse punk anthemism of “Nothing At All” (which is also reprised among the bonus tracks as a low-fi-but-equally-blazing live cut from 1988). It would be easy to play spot-the-influence on numerous tracks here, but the larger point is that these guys internalized the lessons of their era and had the songwriting talent to craft material that, while reverential at times, was still wonderfully unique and deeply emotional. Listening to Cart… is like rediscovering a favorite album from back in the day and realizing that you’d also stashed a tape of unreleased material from the same sessions, tunes that are every bit as strong as the ones you remembered and cherished.
The vinyl LP is lovingly assembled with a full-color insert crammed with vintage photos, including a rather affecting pair of b&w shots that show the three musicians as they were in 1989 (see image at left), and then again in the current era, the former image all fresh-faced indie enthusiasm, the latter suggesting a satisfied “mission finally accomplished” attitude. (The download card contains four bonus tracks as well—nice touch, that.) Indeed, this is how a good rock ‘n’ roll story is supposed to turn out: not with recriminations and missed-opportunities-lamented; and not with lawsuits, overdoses, and the proverbial one-breakout-star-success; but with old friends remembering the magic they once made and can somehow still make, and determined to be the ultimate authors of the story rather than some music critic looking for some good-ol’-days/where-are-they-now nostalgia piece.
Here’s hoping the Hasbros have more chapters they intend to write.
DOWNLOAD: “For the Best,” “Kenny,” “That I Know,” “Nothing At All (live 1988)”