Clubland: Heartman & Russell bring a little ‘west-coast country’ to the Valley

  • Artwork by Jojo Renard Artwork by Jojo Renard

  • Heartman & Russell.  Photo by Julian Maximillian

Thursday, January 11, 2018

“I want a great country song,” Elliot Hartmann-Russell said to his musical collaborator Caleb Rosazza in April 2016.

That simple statement was the big bang of a genius little album the two finally released last month, entitled “Kisses In the Wind.” 

Hartmann-Russell (who plays in Sweat Enzo and Thee Arcadians) and Rosazza (a member of LuxDeluxe) have been friends since their middle school days at Pioneer Valley Performing Arts Charter Public School, and they decided to give their team-up the fanciful name Heartman & Russell. 

It sounds like a long-lost mellow ’70s duo, which is exactly what they were going for.

“We wanted to do a ’70s west-coast country thing,” Rosazza said.

“Without ever having heard ’70s west-coast country, at least in my case,” Hartmann-Russell admitted.

“Eagles meets Beach Boys” is one descriptor the friends came up with during an interview last weekend, and other influences they mentioned during the conversation included early Glen Campbell, the slide work of George Harrison, the unpredictable chords of NRBQ, and Waylon Jennings’ phaser-heavy guitar.

“Kisses In the Wind” is a completely engaging tour de force of fourteen short songs — so short that the album is over in 20 minutes. Each tune clocks in around 90 seconds, the length of TV themes or punk outbursts. 

They’re all crammed to the hilt with melodic wonderment — an opening hook, a key change, a compact solo, a unique coda — without the extra padding or repetition of a typical pop track. It makes it enjoyably impossible to take in the whole album on the first (or fifth) listen.

As Rosazza said about the breezy but densely packed songs, “There’s a lot of information there.”

Yet the album is accessible, as pop as pop can be. Hartmann-Russell’s voice is warm and inviting, and he uses his skills (having been part of a high school a cappella group) to build little chorales of himself, harmonizing smoothly like a one-man Eagles. 

And Rosazza is an inventive guitarist, sneaking in Lindsey Buckingham guitar filigrees (listen to your right speaker near the end of “Heartbeat”) or Mark Knopfler finger-picked solos (as on the gently swaying album-closer “All of the Time”), plus slide guitar that pops up all over the record.

“Kisses In the Wind” begins with its shortest and catchiest song, “Take It Easy My Heart,” which bops with the effervescence of early Beatles tunes. It turns out that this was the “great country song” that began the project, and it was inspired when Rosazza suggested that they needed a song like The Eagles’ “Take It Easy.”

Hartmann-Russell said he’d never heard of it. Rosazza couldn’t believe his friend was unfamiliar with “the hugest song of all time,” but with that goal, they made their own minute-long pop gem.

And while “Take It Easy My Heart” sounds like a rich professional recording, the duo finished the song at home in an hour, with the most basic recording setup imaginable in this modern age — a single USB microphone from the video game Guitar Hero (which Hartmann-Russell said he found at a Goodwill for $2), plugged directly into an old 2008 MacBook, which died not long after they finished the album last year.

Hartmann-Russell played tambourine, some guitar, piano, and handled all the vocals; Rosazza “did everything else,” and explained how their simple setup was hampered by extreme latency, aka the maddening lag between making a sound and finally hearing it, milliseconds later.

“It was so bad, it was impossible to have any kind of real pocket or groove unless you decided to ignore what you’re listening to and listen to it at the same time,” he said. 

However taxing it may have been to create, the finished product sounds effortless and has real moments of magic, like the beautiful and sudden solo acoustic guitar ending of the otherwise up-and-jangly “If I Could Tell You How I Feel.” The instant mood shift makes for a surprisingly emotional coda, and it’s part of the proof that even if the album of love songs started out as a kind of joke — with lyrics that purposefully flirt with cliches and “cheesiness” — it’s clear how much care and honest feeling the duo put into the CD.

As Rosazza said about the thematically linked songs of hearts and love, “They all have a tinge of sorrow. But that’s for the listener to interpret, I suppose.”

When asked about the uniformly short length of their tunes, Hartmann-Russell said that when they were working out the arrangement to “Take It Easy My Heart,” “we just decided that that was enough, we didn’t want to do any more parts. And that song turned out so insanely good, we were blown away, like, ‘This is the best thing we’ve ever made.’”


Hartmann-Russell got animated, calling the arrangements of typical pop tunes “redundant,” and added, “I don’t think I’m ever going to go back to ‘normal’ songs. This is music for the 21st century. For the ADD.”

“Our next album will be ringtones, maybe,” Rosazza chimed in.

Hartmann-Russell mentioned one possibility for a future record: “We were thinking about doing a salsa album.”

“I’d be into it,” Rosazza said, very chill.

Hartmann-Russell was smiling. “What’s the point of life if you’re not going to try and top yourself?”

Heartman & Russell’s “Kisses In the Wind” is available now at sweatenzo.bandcamp.com