TERAH BETH BALTZER VARGA and Justin Varga played their debut show as Hey Lover on their wedding night. In a serendipitous twist of fate, the duo—who moved to Portland from Tennessee in 2004—were given all of their first equipment.
"We had no gear or anything, but one of Justin's friends was moving back in with his parents. We got an electric guitar, we got an amp, we got a PA, we got all the cords," says Terah Beth. "It just fell in our laps, in a way."
For the past two years, Hey Lover have toiled away at their forthcoming third full-length, Sinking Ships. Listening to their music delivers the same kind of joy that comes from savoring a mouthful of Pop Rocks: It's uplifting, sweet, and a little bit explosive. Their self-titled 2007 debut ran on unbridled punk—the album begins with a scream from Terah Beth. 2011's Tennessee slowed down for more tempered, romantic garage-pop without abandoning Hey Lover's surging undercurrent of frenetic energy.
Sinking Ships is their first with bassist Tim Janchar, a longtime friend of the husband-wife duo who put out their first two full-lengths on his and his brother's local lo-fi label, Hovercraft Records. Adding bass to Hey Lover's riotous commotion of guitar and drums has grounded the band's sound, allowing Justin freedom to "noodle" and experiment with more nuanced guitar work. Justin, the primary songwriter, describes his creative process: "Stabbing out in the middle of nowhere; tinkering until something catches my imagination." This hasn't changed much on the new record, though the execution of big ideas has evolved with Janchar in the mix.
"The first album was faster, more full of crazy energy, the second one was more refined," says Terah Beth. "My drumming is a lot different with the bass. I don't feel like I have to do that much, I just have to keep the song going."
The cover of Sinking Ships is a picture of artist Pat Moriarity's huge eight-by-eight-foot "Your Face Here" cutout featuring all three members of Hey Lover in the arms of a sea monster. It's inspired by the trio's goofy infatuation with carnival-esque cutouts.
"It became a thing—anytime we saw one, we'd put our heads through," says Janchar.
On the new record they glide between punk, garage, and bubblegum pop, never allowing themselves to be pigeonholed into a single category. Tracks like the slow-dancing love song "Nancy" somehow feel right at home on the same album as "Underground," a 41-second sonic brain scrambler that feels like a manic ride on a pogo stick from hell.
Opener "I Wanna Be With You" erupts out of a flaming wall of fuzz, spawning one simple, catchy guitar hook and pairing it with the Vargas' perfectly complementary harmonies. Here you can feel Janchar's bass line supporting and mediating frenzied, ebullient pandemonium.
The album's standout and giddiest moment is "I've Got a Car," when Justin sings, "I've got a car, I've got keys, I can drive/Let's get out of here" and later, "We ain't savin' up for nothin'." It's a romantic revelation, but also thunderously punk, like a Bonnie and Clyde escapist love song.
The album's coda, "Drifting Again," finds Hey Lover after the storm, and sounds like they're floating on a piece of driftwood after their ship has sunk. It's at once calming and awash in discontent as Justin sings, "I'm out in space/But I'm stuck in a rut" over Janchar's rolling bass and Terah Beth's sea of "sha-la-la" harmonies.
Hey Lover navigates these dichotomies with skillful precision, greeting uncertainty with uncontainable chaos, dullness with blinding sunshine, and endings with blowout farewell parties. Despite the album's name, Sinking Ships finds Hey Lover buoyant as ever.