I have often lamented that I was born ten years too late, and didn’t have the chance to be a teenager when they still played good music on the radio. It would have been so awesome to have gone to high school in the late ‘70s – when youth culture meant rock concerts in hockey arenas and vinyl records on the turntable and posters of KISS and Cheap Trick on your bedroom wall. It seems almost unfathomable now, but there was a time when having a hit single was a positive accomplishment, when appealing to a mass audience meant that you wrote great songs with melodies and hooks, when rock music was actually fun to listen to. Perhaps my high school years co-incided with the tail end of that era (Van Halen and Guns N’ Roses were rock royalty at the time). But by my college days, the party was over – as the angst, self-loathing, and heavy seriousness of grunge became the new model for youth rock. Things only got worse as the decade continued – the rise of “nu metal” meaning that FM rock was becoming not only even more of a major downer, but also intentionally devoid of melody. Catchy choruses were out. Harmonies were out. Screaming anguish and “edgy” sounds were in. It was around this time that American Heartbreak delivered one of the greatest pop-rock albums this world has ever known. Needless to say, it was not well-received by the public.
I would describe Postcards from Hell as an album packed with potential hit singles – if it had been released in 1978. Formed by Billy Rowe (late of the outstanding glam metal band Jetboy) and Michael Butler (formerly of thrash legends Exodus), American Heartbreak began its quest to save music from awfulness back in 1996. Rowe and Butler, deciding it would be fun to play the “good catchy rock n’ roll” style they grew up on, set out to emulate old favorites both obscure (Starz, Angel) and iconic (Aerosmith, AC/DC). It may have not seemed like a novel concept. But in the era of Korn and Rage Against the Machine, the idea of American Heartbreak was truly heaven sent. Lance Boone was recruited to sing, and the band was off and running. An EP called What You Deserve arrived in early 1997, and a couple years later AH really hit its stride with the great “Please Kill Me” single on the punk label Pelado. Finally in 2000 came a proper album. To say Postcards from Hell did not disappoint would be like saying the 2010 Giants had a pretty good baseball season.
The album plays like a greatest hits compilation from some long-lost ‘70s rock group who might have filled an opening slot on a mythical KISS/Cheap Trick concert tour, but with a clean modern production redolent of, say, early Goo Goo Dolls or Foo Fighters. There are no ballads, no synthesizers, and no experimentations with musical style. From start to finish it’s just high-powered, super-melodic rock fueled by Ginsu-sharp hooks and a massive wall of guitars. Just when you think you’ve heard “the hit”, immediately comes another song just as good. You hear tracks like “Superstar”, “Too Beautiful”, “Brain Vacation”, and “Idiots On Parade” and have to gather that if these songs weren’t massive hit singles, then surely the world must have gone insane. You’d be right – just look at the units being shifted at the time by Creed and Limp Bizkit. Sometime, at some point during the late ‘80s or early ‘90s, good taste at the mass level simply died. This was the beauty of a record like Postcards from Hell. The most anti-commercial thing to do in the year 2000 was to make the greatest commercial rock album in the history of time. It wasn’t about money or fame. It was about craft. Rowe and his band mates carefully and meticulously constructed an album’s worth of completely perfect pop songs – each one containing a chorus catchier than the clap, melodies made for the radio, and glossy, glorious guitar hooks out the wazoo. Boone, singing for the first time in a “big” band, proved to be a natural rock singer - hitting all the notes while bringing bona fide rock star swagger.
It was tempting to hear Postcards from Hell and fantasize about a rock n’ roll revolution – that somehow this album and these songs would get out there and people would suddenly like good music again, that through the healing power of song American Heartbreak would bring joy to the despondent masses and obliterate all the raging nu metalists as swiftly and decisively as Nirvana had wiped away a generation of hair metal bands. It was tempting to imagine American Heartbreak in heavy rotation on MTV (Yes, they used to play music videos on that network), children dancing in the streets to “Dead at Seventeen”, the group playing “I Wish You Were (D.E.A.D.)” on Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve, and fans lining up blocks at a time for tickets to the AH/Tsar Super Hit Parade Worldwide Domination Tour. But here we are ten years later. Postcards from Hell is long out of print, and they still don’t play good music on rock radio. American Heartbreak’s debut album did not change the very face of the world. But it damn well should have. I tend to be less prone to hyperbole in my old age, but I’ll conservatively call Postcards from Hell a classic of its genre.