Jan 11, 2006 at 12:00 am

“Long ago, we were finding out everything about each other,” A Thousand Times Yes guitarist-vocalist Joe Hoffman sings in “Desert of Law-Abiding Souls,” off 2003’s Michigan. It was the band’s official debut after losing a member and leaving Lansing for Detroit; it was also a record cloaked in mythology and suggestion, from aliases for each member to a fanciful yarn that served as a band bio and teasing lyrics that reveled in misdirection (“You’ve got a soft leather heart!” or “TV screens and menopause”). It has taken three years for the members of this trio to really learn everything about each other, to really discover how they want their music to look, sound and feel. In that time there were highs, lows, frustrations and realizations; there was even a somewhat lengthy hiatus. But as A Thousand Times Yes returns with a new album, the group knows the adversity has only made it stronger. Feel the burn.

This month the group releases Heart Beats, and it clarifies the promise of Michigan. The trebly chime of Daydream Nation Sonic Youth is still a touchstone for Hoffman’s guitar, and the trio’s sensibilities still lean toward ’90s indie rock, somewhere between Unwound’s anxious rumble and the romantic hand-wringing of Velocity Girl. But Heart Beats is more compact, with restless, on-edge rhythms and taut melodies that draw energy from the bolder vocal presence of Hoffman and bassist-vocalist Audra Marks. Their lyrics are more direct too. Instead of veiling feeling, or arcing around a theme, A Thousand Times Yes more often than not hits it straight on.

This was a conscious decision.

“We didn’t want to hide behind the layers anymore,” Hoffman says, settled along with his bandmates in a corner booth at Woodward Avenue Brewery in Ferndale. His “Casper Van Hoffman” handle is retired, as are “Sparx” and “Lull Tucker,” the respective aliases of Marks and drummer Greg Evangelista. (“It wasn’t a reference to [Velvet Underground] drummer Mo Tucker,” Evangelista says with a laugh. “I just thought it sounded cool.”) [Full disclosure: Evangelista is a Metro Times employee.] Hoffman and Marks agree that on Heart Beats, their lyrics have evolved away from Michigan’s metaphorical approach toward something truer and more personal. Marks mentions “Leaving Detroit,” and how its first-person farewell to both a city and a beau is exactly what she never would have written before. “Will you give me my last kiss in Detroit?” she sings, and there’s no imagery there, just an ultimatum. (The song’s gentle insistence is pretty great too — it channels the band Unrest but keeps A Thousand Times Yes’ usual melodic tension intact.)

Marks also sings lead on “Love Song for Me” and “Sibling Rivalry/Sibling Love.” Again, matters of the heart are on the band’s mind: longing for love, fretting about it and occasionally sounding pretty pissed about getting it. But Marks pilots both tunes, whereas on Michigan she and Hoffman might have traded lines, and her strident vocals give the songs a woman’s point of view emotionally. Still, the songs are about the three of them too. Evangelista’s drums jump into every crevice on “Sibling Rivalry”; Hoffman adds effectual stabs of six-string blister over Marks’ propulsive bass line; and the song ends with an unlikely sing-along just begging for a live crowd’s input. The lyrics might be personal, but the feelings are universal.

Of course, Heart Beats also has its love-hate entries, and leading the way is Hoffman’s tense “Modern Age,” with its tricky tempos. “Hope that you don’t mind that I don’t give a shit about your scene,” he sings, and here his sighing baritone does twine in and out of Marks’ vocal, as they used to do on Michigan. “Hope you’re ready to go to our show.” There’s no metaphor there, that’s for sure. But while Hoffman acknowledges the reference to Detroit’s fractious or at least cliquey rock scene, he hears “Modern Age” as more of a lament, a desire for every band or genre to at least have some equal footing around town. “Indie rock, punk, garage rock, whatever,” he says, letting his words trail off because everyone at the table knows what he means.

Though Michigan appeared through the tiny Lansing imprint Isoxys, the members decided to release Heart Beats themselves. At the WAB, they explain how this was another conscious decision. Isoxys, run by a friend, had given them a platform on which to put out Michigan. But distribution was limited at best, and promotion was nonexistent. During their self-imposed hiatus this past fall — Hoffman got married in September, Marks was preparing to take the GRE in psychology — it became clear that a self-release was the better option. Just as they no longer wanted their music obscured in layers — the myth-making bio on the Web site is also a memory — they also wanted control over their own destiny. The booth’s conversation turns to endorsement of and a little bit of amazement at the power and technological ease of downloadable songs on iTunes and online social networks like MySpace. When considering labels versus the idea of going it alone, A Thousand Times Yes decided it was easier to reach a potential fan in, say, Fond du Lac, Wis., through his inbox or MySpace community than in the bin at his local record shop.

Proprietors of record stores will groan, and not without reason. But A Thousand Times sees Internet self-promotion as a way not only to build their fan base, but even book tours too. In other words, hello, Wisconsin!

Since the new record was also the first to be recorded with Detroit as the band’s official home, it made sense to think locally. Heart Beats was recorded with Rob Shelby at Harmonie Park studios, and features former Back in Spades leader Stephen Palmer (contributing some particularly screedy guitar to the explosive, time-released “Magic Pill”) as well as Dave Feeny (Blanche, American Mars), whose pedal steel guitar aches in the backgrounds of “My Sympathies” and “Sailor’s Revenge.” Initially moody, the latter two songs hark most to Michigan’s more opaque approach. But in true Heart Beat fashion they come alive in a rush of harmony, pulsing drums and a triumph of intensity over influence. The group has been finding out everything about each other for more than five years, finding out how to make the band work. In Heart Beat’s concise pulse is the answer, and it’s all theirs. In one more local and totally cool connection, the album features cover art from famed Detroit poster artist Gary Grimshaw. Fittingly, it depicts a heart burning at a thousand degrees Fahrenheit.


Friday, Jan. 13, at the Magic Stick, 4120 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-9700; with We Are Wolves, Zoos of Berlin, and Marie and Francis.

Johnny Loftus is a freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected]