I've been mulling over possible introductions for this review for a while now, but I think the best way to do it is start with the obvious conclusion: This is the year's best record thus far.
the heat tape is fronted by Brett Hunter, the familiar voice of pop-punk darlings the Copyrights and Dear Landlord. Joining him is Ben Bleyer (Conniption Fitts) and Brooks Davey of the Southern Illinois Invasive Species Strike Team (that's a thing, not a band-thanks, Google).
Essentially a song-a-day project that morphed into a band, the heat tape has all the trappings of poppy garage punk done right. Raccoon Valley Recordings was written and recorded in Brett's trailer in Makanda, Ill., a detail that seems to radiate from each track. What separates the heat tape from the smattering of crappy garage overflowing in the U.S. and Europe is that Hunter's previous pop-punk endeavors have laid the musical foundation to distinguish it from the majority, sharing only the lo-fi sensibilities and DIY recording aesthetics. the heat tape is certainly not the first band to accomplish this (the Marked Men, High Tension Wires and Scared of Chaka have all succeeded in similar ways), but it's still nice to hear garage punk that skips the slop and showcases a more mature sense of melody and musicianship.
In lieu of lyrics, the digipak includes brief annotations explaining such insights as that, though "Oh Camilla" sounds like a smitten serenade to a certain female human, the song is, in fact, about a chicken. There's a good deal of self-deprecation ("21st Century Turd", "Feel No Good", "Crackin' Up") but there's a sense of sincerity that emits from each song, making every painful concession seem genuine. The mid-tempo "4-Track Mind" could be the anthem of the album, as Hunter earnestly makes metaphor of his current condition: "The only thing left of my youth is the hiss in my four-track mind."
While "Idle Hands" is undoubtedly the catchiest song of the album (and a phenomenal closer), the best song has to be "Quotes from an Unopened Letter". As explained in the notations, the lyrics are composed of words taken directly from an unopened letter from the White County jail Hunter found in his trailer when he bought it. The heart-wrenching storytelling is compounded by the reality of the circumstances, as Hunter takes the first-person role of the anonymous author: "Grandma was the only person there for me / She testified on my behalf / It hurted me to see her cry on the stand / Right now I feel broken / I guess I just didn't try hard enough... Sometimes I wish that I was dead / I can't believe I'll never see Shelly again / The more I try, the worser I get / I guess I just didn't try hard enough."
There's a realness inherent in this record that's lost on so much of the music that comes out today. It's not necessarily the lo-fi aesthetics or the fact it was recorded in a trailer, but is probably more of a reflection thereof. It's the life of an unemployed 30-year-old in rural southern Illinois put to tape...err, heat tape. The result is the best garage punk record this side of Texas since...well, maybe ever.