Heartless Bastards - Arrow [Album Review]
Cutting some deep grooves on their fourth studio album, Arrow, the Heartless Bastards owe a big debt to the '70s output of Neil Young as they turn in this classic slab of rock and roll.
On their début for Brooklyn-based indie rock label Partisan Records, singer/guitarist/songwriter Erika Wennerstrom turns in 10 well-crafted rock and roll songs and delivers solid throaty vocal performances that longtime fans will appreciate. Recorded by Spoon drummer/co-producer Jim Eno at his Public Hi-Fi home studio in Austin, the album sees its official release on February 14, 2012 just as the band is starting a late winter tour.
For their last album, the critically acclaimed work, The Mountain, Spoon producer Mike McCarthy helped to broaden their rock sound to include elements of country music, employing instruments related to that genre such as violin, banjo, mandolin and steel guitar. Here the band continues to polish their sound as they employ elements of classic rock, Americana, garage rock, indie rock and the aforementioned country into a mixture that has a can't miss quality.
Originally hailing from Cincinnati, the Austin-based group solidified a few years ago to tour behind their last album. After a few line up changes over the years -- Wennestrom remains the sole constant -- original drummer Dave Colvin and bassist Jesse Ebagh, who recorded the earliest demos the band released, were brought back into the fold allowing the sound to gel. When guitarist Mark Nathan was added to round out the sound, the band seemed to find a lineup that best suits them. In fact, at the announcement for the new record last fall, Wennestrom told Billboard, "I feel like this is the strongest record I've ever done. I feel like playing with these guys, us all being so connected, really helped make it so fully realized. I'm really, really happy with it."
The first single, "Parted Ways," is an upbeat strummer that would have felt right at home on a 1973 era Neil Young album had the singer not been grief-stricken over the loss of his Crazy Horse band mate Danny Whitten. Choosing a nearly five-minute long single might seem risky, but the band expertly carries it off as a much shorter track. As the music builds slowly, Wennerstrom, singing at the higher end of her range for much of the song, showcases a breathy delivery that is earthy and soulful as she sings, "I need a little bit of whiskey and a little bit of time to ease my worried mind." Taking it down a notch after the guitar solo, the band begins to build again to reel the listener back in for the finale. Just when things seem to falter at the three-and-a-half minute mark, the band dumps the clutch and the song kicks into a higher gear. Wennerstrom adds excitement with gospel inspired vocals then turns the wheel over to Nathan as he rips off another blistering guitar solo, while Colvin brings a healthy dose of killer drum fills to the party to deliver the goods.
The rock riffage gets crunchy and ever thicker with the T-Rex inspired track, "Got to Have Rock and Roll." As Ebagh lays down a funky bass line, Wennestrom's voice fills with androgynous overtones that evoke the rock side of glam. Demonstrating her versatility further, Wennerstrom abandons the low register for her falsetto notes on "Only For You," a soulful rock ballad. While she comes up a little short in the vocal range, the hooky baritone-esque guitar line saves the song. Nathan provides a solid guitar solo and Ebagh adds a rare bass outro to end the song and further enhance its merits.
The jaunty six-and-a-half minute ballad, "The Arrow and The Beast," takes on the feel like a modern-day Spaghetti Western theme. A deep echo effect on the guitar and vocals punctuate the sound scape as Wennerstrom slowly strums along on her acoustic guitar and a thundering tympani style drum keeps the slow beat. Her voice nearly croons as she sings the line, "The arrow kills the beast that is burning inside of me."
On "Late in the Night" the band perfectly concocts a mid-tempo classic rocker in the vein of The Faces or early '70s Stones. Arguably the best track on the record, the song features a scorching guitar solo from Nathan. For much of the album Colvin has laid back to keep solid beats behind the drum kit. Here, however, he puts some wicked fills and rolls to tape, as he nearly becomes a lead drummer. Yet another track that mainstream rock radio should accept with open arms, but since it's from an indie label will go unnoticed by program directors.
For the first of two acoustic based tracks, "Skin and Bone," the band employs layers of strummed jumbo-sized acoustic guitars to give an Americana feel. An acoustic guitar solo cuts through the mix as congas and other percussion adds color to the deep groove being laid down by Colvin. However, on the second such song, "Low Low Low," Wennestrom's voice takes center stage as she belts "I'm getting used to being alone/I'm getting used to out on my own" over tightly picked guitar lines. On the right night in an acoustically rich live setting this song could serve as a showstopper.
The final track of the record, "Down in the Canyon," finds the quartet returning to Neil Young and Crazy Horse for their best impression yet. Even though the opening seems better suited to a lost Black Sabbath song, the seven-and-a-half minute track features low droning guitar tones that gradually builds the tension. As the songs ambles on, Wennestrom sings "the hour is getting late" while Colvin holds the reins tight as to not let the train run out of steam too quickly. The intensity continues to increase to an eventual crescendo of vocals as Wennestrom sings "I'll be home tomorrow" from the top of her voice, while guitar solos from her and Nathan after the five-minute mark return the listener to their proverbial home as the song ends. The end the song will have you pulling out your vinyl copy of Zuma to re-listen to "Cortez the Killer" and decide which one is better.
With half of the songs on Arrow topping the five-minute mark, the album clocks in at a lengthy 52 minutes -- robust for only 10 songs. It's not so much that they are against three-minute rock songs, but rather that they are comfortable with extended guitar solos, funky grooves filled with strong riffs and the occasional mini-jam. The underlying inherent beauty is that the Heartless Bastards are not afraid to let these songs stretch out and breathe. Consequently, this is where the songs tend to shine and the band's strength is revealed.
Heartless Bastards - Arrow track list 01. Marathon 02. Parted Ways 03. Got To Have Rock and Roll 04. Only For You 05. Simple Feeling 06. Skin and Bone 07. The Arrow and the Beast 08. Late in the Night 09. Low Low Low 10. Down In The Canyon
"Parted Ways" (Studio Video)
"Late in the Night" - a Do512 lounge session