The Bleeding Hearts were born to be badasses, liars or both. In 2003, Sam Madison, a longtime Raleigh musician who'd played half a dozen styles of music in as many local bands, met a trio of New York immigrants: Joe Yerry played guitar, Jimbo Britt played bass, and Scott Taylor played drums.
Madison, in his mid-30s at the time and finalizing a divorce, wrote some songs about having fun in high school, and the band took off: The first Bleeding Hearts show nearly packed the Lincoln Theatre, and the band made its first record, Stayin' After Class, fast, after a blast of early buzz earned it a deal with Charlotte indie label MoRisen Records. Four tough dudes playing slicked-back rock 'n' roll with the sneer of a young punk: Pure badasses, it seemed.
But some people thought The Bleeding Hearts were liars. They looked tough, but their agile riffs and juvenile obsessions weren't rough enough for great Raleigh rock.
"We got a lot of attention right away, and there was instantly a backlash because of it," remembers Yerry. "Most of that album was silly, but it was like rock 'n' roll high school by an unknown band in Raleigh."
But The Bleeding Hearts stuck with it, playing often and writing plenty. Time and its troubles—a member leaving, the search for a replacement, a divorce for the frontman—shaped and steeled the band's edge. Its just-released second record, Nothin' on but the Radio, is more involved and involving than Stayin' After Class. The band says the four-year wait between records was worth it for them, at least.
The end result of a good record didn't make a tough few years any easier, though: The deal with MoRisen was scratched not long after the record was finished, and a New York-based indie picked up Stayin' After Class. Madison admits the record fell flat upon release. The label didn't know what to do with it, and The Bleeding Hearts—still somewhat new at being a band—didn't either.
On Stayin' After Class, Madison had written the songs and taught them to the band. Yerry's guitar lines mostly doubled his. Shortly after the record was made, though, these roles began to change. The four-piece slowly started to gel as a group, and new songs were written and arranged as a band.
Then, of course, someone quit.
"Me and Jimbo grew up with Scott. I mean, I've known him since I was 9 years old, and I'm 36," says Yerry, sitting on the back porch of Slim's, the rock bar in downtown Raleigh where he books bands and serves Madison drinks. "When he announced that he was leaving, he was shaking."
Madison had more than an album's worth of songs ready to commit to tape two years ago, but after so many bands and so many breakups, he was more than a little suspicious of The Bleeding Hearts' shelf life. He wanted to find a new full-time drummer before making the second record or simply move on to the next project.
"There is a sell-by date," says Madison. "We had been together four years by the point Scott left, and it crossed all our minds, 'Well, we may as well call it a day.'"
After spending the better part of the year looking for a drummer, The Bleeding Hearts found him in an unexpected place. Dave Bartholomew—a rock 'n' roll journeyman who toured with The Screaming Trees and plays in eight Raleigh bands including Tres Chicas—produced Stayin' After Class and was set to record its follow-up. Then he decided he'd also like to be in the band. The Hearts were as shocked as they were thrilled.
"He's into the band, but I didn't know he'd be into playing in the band. I never heard Dave play drums like that," says Yerry. "He nailed it on the first rehearsal."
Indeed, Bartholomew was perfect for the job. He knew all of the songs, either from producing or from hearing the new numbers in venues around town. And it was a band effort, says Yerry: "This is much more a Bleeding Hearts record than a Sam Madison record."
Mostly for that reason, Nothin' on but the Radio improves on Stayin' After Class in every way. The guitars don't simply state and restate the themes. The parts dovetail and redirect, lacing through feedback and into electric lines that sound written in italics. Britt and Bartholomew sound comfortable and cohesive, and Madison takes chances with his writing, opting for an acoustic guitar on one song and a modern-rock, manipulated vocals coda on another.
More importantly, Madison isn't writing like a kid anymore. Between records, he went through his second divorce. He and his wife had adopted a child, and he says the guilt he felt when he left his family found its way into the lyrics.
"This is the rawest stuff, and the most naked, I've ever allowed myself to be in writing," says Madison. "There are love songs on this album, and I've never in my life written a love song."
Songs like "In a Bad Place" and "Don't Judge a Book" deliver charged emotional scenes, and they're even more compelling stacked against a tongue-in-cheek take on adult situations like "Rehab Girl" or the veiled social critique of "Nothin' on but the Radio." The songs give the music the right to have an edge, to take chances. That had never been a strength of the band. The Bleeding Hearts, at last, sound the part of the badass—and, at last, they seem honest.
The Bleeding Hearts plays The Pour House Friday, May 16, at 10 p.m. with The Magic Babies and Sir Arthur & His Knights. Tickets are $6.