Release Date: Feb 14, 2012
Record label: Partisan
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Alternative Pop/Rock, Garage Punk, Indie Rock
"Simple feeling!" shouts Erika Wennerstrom, slurring the phrase until she's slinging gibberish. Um, maybe they aren't so simple? Her band's crushing fourth LP sets the quartet alongside Ohio kin the Black Keys as front-line blues-rock modernists, with her writhing vocals at the center; she works the vowels on "Marathon" with the focus of a woman who knots cherry stems with her tongue. Meanwhile, guitars scald: "Parted Ways" recalls Television's jam punk, "Got to Have Rock and Roll" is muddy-booted glam, "Down in the Canyon" is seven minutes of countrified doom metal.
On their fourth album, the Ohio minimalist rockers haven’t made any drastic changes to their aesthetic or approach to songwriting, but there is a discernable increase in the quality and strength of the tunes that makes it the band’s best record so far. The Bastards have always been a vehicle to showcase Erika Wennerstrom’s wonderfully androgynous and powerful voice that sounds like it would be just as at home belting tunes about black magic and dark spirits as it is personal tales of love, loss and general weariness, the latter which she tends to opt for. On “Marathon,” the six-minute opener to Arrow, Wennerstrom uses the race as a metaphor for being on the road, being alone and trying to find her way back home.
In a time when synth-obsessed indie pop runs rampant amidst the blogosphere, it is refreshing to hear a band that has dedicated its career to a more classic approach to rock ‘n roll. The popularity of Band of Horses and My Morning Jacket in the past decade has given the southern rock scene a consistent presence in the music world, and Heartless Bastards have proved themselves to be one of the most impressive bands in this category. Their 2009 album The Mountain was a flawed masterpiece, moving from the riff-heavy songs from their early sound to the incorporation of a variety of genres such as folk, garage rock, blues, and country.
Arrow marks the second time in two albums that Erika Wennerstrom has reinvented her band the Heartless Bastards; after the breakup of the lineup that cut Stairs and Elevators and All This Time, Wennerstrom put together a provisional version of the Bastards to record 2009's The Mountain, a relatively introspective set that found her exploring her country and folk influences. It was after The Mountain was released that a proper new Heartless Bastards came together, and Arrow sounds noticeably different than both previous editions of the group. Arrow is a rock & roll album that hits harder and straighter than The Mountain, but this bunch of Bastards -- Wennerstrom on vocals and guitar, Mark Nathan on guitar, Jesse Ebaugh on bass, and Dave Colvin on drums -- summons a more refined racket than the rough, primal roar of the Bastards Mk.
In an alternate musical reality, Heartless Bastards would be rewarded for their years of hard work and toil by getting the chance to tour arenas, headline Coachella and Bonnaroo, and grace the cover of Rolling Stone. If this sounds like a familiar scenario for you, it should, because it’s the trajectory the Black Keys have followed over the past several years, as they have worked their two-man power blues stomp from the dirty basements of Akron, Ohio to the big production studios of Hollywood and Nashville. In the span of a few years, they’ve morphed from obscure local favorites to indie-rock darlings to the modern equivalent of full-blown rock and roll stars.
After a move to Austin, constant touring, and several lineup changes, the Heartless Bastards don’t sound so restless anymore. Since starting out as a bluesy bar band in Dayton, Ohio in 2003, the group has rounded its edges bit by bit, and their upward trajectory in both sound and appeal shows on Arrow. It might be the fourth record under the Heartless Bastards name, but it’s truly the first with a solidified backing band for lead singer and songwriter Erika Wennerstrom.
The Heartless Bastards never got tagged as the next saviors of rock'n'roll, although they certainly possess all the relevant traits: a strong grounding not in blues but in blues rock, a conservative aesthetic that nods to rock history but is never beholden to any one particular artist or scene, and most importantly a frontwoman with a commanding voice. Perhaps their name was too misleading or their lineup too precarious, but the Bastards escaped the mantle that's been assigned to everyone from the Strokes to the Black Keys and most recently to the Alabama Shakes. If that has left them out of enviable company, at least they've managed to attract a loyal audience and even star in a crucial "Friday Night Lights".
Even way back in 2005, otherwise known as the year that every other riff-happy power trio (see: Wolfmother, Black Mountain, etc. ) decided to release their debut, there was something about Heartless Bastards. Maybe it was Erika Wennerstrom’s immense pipes or the equally mighty instrumentation she and her bandmates backed it with, or perhaps it was the simple, compelling tales she spun in that dulcet voice of hers, but something about the group’s 2005 debut Stairs and Elevators marked the trio as quite extraordinary.
On Heartless Bastards’ fourth album, singer-songwriter-guitarist Erika Wennerstrom and her newest set of backing musicians continue to follow the mud-stained heartland highway that connects early Neil Young records to the latest Kings of Leon disc. Perhaps because producer Jim Eno also drums for another Austin band, Spoon, the rhythms are sharper than ever, and new second guitarist Mark Nathan helps Wennerstrom come up with guitar breaks that can sing as well as wail. But mostly the singing is left to Wennerstrom’s peculiar vocals, the group’s main attraction and distraction at once.
This is an album I struggled to not like. I wanted to like it. In fact, all of the elements of a likeable album are there: the strong band, the excellent songwriting, memorable lyrics, and some occasional hooks. But the parts don’t add up and, after repeated listenings where I waited for something to catch, for me to “get it”; I ended up just getting more and more frustrated.
Heartless Bastards' third album, 2009's The Mountain, opened with the stunning rumble and quake of the title track, a breakout in every sense as Erika Wennerstrom's singing torched a statement of rising defiance and ferocity. Arrow, its follow-up, leads similarly with the epic, six-minute build of "Marathon," an equally if not even more significant evolution for the local quartet, now augmented with second guitarist Mark Nathan to bolster the frontwoman's six-string leadership. Rather than the unexpected power of the previous LP, here, the 10 songs prove finely honed and propelled by purpose, starting with Wennerstrom's dazzling vocal control.
Okay, let’s get the obvious out of the way first: how could you not like a band with a name like Heartless Bastards? Well, maybe if you’re Tipper Gore you wouldn’t, but I give the Ohio quartet some points for their name alone. Then there’s their first three albums, which brought out the best in the sort of swagger-induced, bluesy garage rock championed by better known bands like the Black Keys and the White Stripes. My point being: I thought I liked this band.