Heartless Bastards have made a living working within the confines of blues-influenced hard rock by injecting a slightly more contemporary energy into the muscle of their best songs. There’s little doubt lead singer Erika Wennerstrom can sing the living Christ out of a rock tune, and while it’s usually coupled with the pounding, John Bonham-like kick drums and chugging (sometimes noodley) guitar riffs deployed as the Bastards primarily weapons, her song writing always seems to possess a boozy, tattered, underground edge that recklessly muddies up the group’s 70s cock rock aura.
I’m thankful because those archetypal stadium god poses would fit awkwardly on a scrappy, Texan band like this, and it’s obvious Paul Westerberg and The Replacements certainly loom just as large as Zeppelin or the Allman Brother’s Band in the Bastards rearview mirror. But while stacking them up against contemporaries like The Low Anthem and The Hold Steady (who have had a lock down on that “America’s Best Bar Band” label for the past decade that) The Bastards easily seem most comfortable plying their trade in what could be considered (in this day and age) bare bones “Rock and Roll,” a genre which, as this century rolls on, seems to be increasingly disenfranchised by both mainstream and alternative culture. (silent majority rock, anyone?)
And now, after the sinew laden, guitar and piano confections of 2006’s All This Time, and the slogging, shit kicking twang of the roided up alt-country on 2009’s The Mountain, Heartless Bastards have found an intriguing middle ground with their latest album Arrow, balancing Wennerstrom’s penchant for crafting beautifully dusty ballads and mid tempo numbers with the limber, hard as nails rawk songs the group can perform in their sleep.
The quiet opener “Marathon” builds to a nice, anthemic finish almost entirely on the strength of Wennerstrom’s hearty vocals, recalling a similar, gorgeous performance on the piano driven album opener “All This Time.” It’s a small gamble to let the album open on such a slow burn, but the one-two punch of the cruising “Parted Ways,” Bowie-like (and simple thesis) “Got to Have Rock and Roll,” manage to clear the brush for the sprawling, rolling, album center piece “Simple Feeling.” Churning percussion work along with guitar parts splayed in every direction (including repeated psychedelic solos that wouldn’t be out of place on Quicksilver’s Happy Trails) makes “Simple Feeling” a thick slab of a song. The finish especially doesn’t spare any expense, with the guitar wail and drums pouring in from all direction as Wennerstrom howls “SIMPLE FEELING! SIMPLE FEELING!”
And, while the album’s second half doesn’t keep the momentum going that peaked with “Simple Feeling,” and has one glaring misstep (the dreary “The Arrow Killed the Beast”) there is still room for solid well-written acoustic tracks like “Skin and Bone” and the beautifully lo-fi “Low Low Low.” The seven-minute plus “Down in the Canyon” closes out the album with a slow dirge, as Wennestrom paints a grim picture of some sort of end, bearing down with the inevitability of an ominous dust storm in the desert’s distance: “I’ll make a fire/got winter in my bones/out here on my own/and the hour/is getting/late.”
“Down” definitely overstays its welcome but it’s still compelling to see the band try out something this loose and meandering, blatantly flirting with many of the most indulgent tendencies of classic rock only pull back just before reaching the precipice. Heartless Bastards are, and will probably remain, an extremely good scrappy bar band. But, who the fuck said that was a bad thing?