“What’s up y’all,” are the first words Heroine vocalist Ernest Isaac Benavidez screams on Playing for Keeps, so it’s probably unnecessary for him to add (in his best metal shriek) the band is “from San Antonio Texas!”* But it’s overkill, most often in the form of gratuitous rock ’n’rollisms — the one too many “whoos,” two guitar solos where one might suffice — that seems to best define the band, separating them from countless other big-rock revivalists who’ve studied the clichés without adopting the attitude, or mastered the sneer without developing the chops. The Heroine trade almost exclusively in rocker-as-road-warrior mythology, but they’ve got the talent and drive to shape it into something personal and new. Playing for Keeps sounds old only in attitude — cock rock with a set of 21st-century balls.
“She only loves me when I’m playing rock ’n’ roll,” Benavidez complains of a fickle backstage Betty on proper opener “Love Is a Gun,” and she might as well be the same muse that’s been pushing horny young dudes onstage since the electric guitar was invented. Still, when Benavidez vows “She’s gonna be mine tonight,” you believe it, because it’s a boast backed up with some honest to god rock; each verse consummates in a multidirectional sonic assault. Better, “The Battle of Lynnwood King” rehashes the “sold our soul for rock ’n’ roll” bit, but isn’t content to let Benavidez’s hell-fired delivery (check out the unbelievable snottiness he crams into “down” in the line “I went down to the crossroads”) carry the song. Jorge Luevano and Derek Badillo understand what Robert Johnson, Eric Clapton, and too few other guitarists have: If you’re claiming your shit’s fueled by Satan, you better play like a fucking demon.
The impassioned (and surprisingly acoustic and straightforward) version of traditional spiritual “Just a Closer Walk With Thee” (here titled “Walking With Jesus”)that closes the album complicates the band’s alliance, but the Heroine clearly believe most strongly in the power of rock. Playing for Keeps is ultimately redeemed, however, by the band’s willingness to meet rock more than halfway. The title track, for example, threatens “Me and the boys are back in town, and we’re gonna burn this mother down” and oversells it with plenty of guitar noodles and hells yeah, but are you really going to ridicule the lyrics when the end result sounds like AC/DC and Guns n’ Roses in a PCP-fueled knife fight?
The Heroine celebrates the release of Playing for Keeps Saturday, June 20, at Jiggers (1639 Babcock). Check out the Current’s larger feature on the band in our July 1 edition.
*Also, I’m pretty positive the title track opens with a shout out to the San Antonio Spurs.