Thursday, February 12, 2009

Review: Heartless Bastards - The Mountain (* * * *)

Heartless Bastards is a misleading name for the Ohio-based trio led by Erika Wennerstrom, who don't seem to be heartless and at least one of whom can't technically be a bastard. Though the inaccurate title would suggest that the band have a humorous side, they take their music quite seriously and have been creating gritty, grunge-inspired rock 'n' roll for several years alongside former label mates and fellow Ohio-ans the Black Keys which has earned them some well-deserved acclaim. The group just released their third album, The Mountain, with two original members, Jesse Ebaugh and Dave Colvin, returning to the band for bass and drum duty.

Right from the start, Heartless Bastards' greatest strength is revealed when Wennerstrom's powerful voice takes off midway through opener "The Mountain." It's a voice that bears little resemblance to many female singers, an emotionally charged howl (for lack of a better word) filled with sadness, anger, and longing. Songs like "Early in the Morning" and "Out At Sea" have a driving, intense rhythm that allows her to let loose, creating turbulent rock tunes and some of the album's most striking moments. However, while the spotlight may be on Wennerstrom’s vocals, the music the band creates deserves recognition as well. These louder, grungier rock songs follow the basic guitar/bass/drum template which the band has perfected over the years and the delivery is simple, raw, and effective.

The Mountain has much more to offer than just straightforward rock ‘n’ roll, however, and while the heavier and more direct moments are fantastic, some of the slower, mellower tunes shine just as bright. Fortunately, while she often sounds a bit wild and untamed, Wennerstrom knows her limits and understands when to go big and when to restrain her voice to fit the record’s more subtle songs. "So Quiet" is a lovely folk tune with plucked acoustic guitar backed by some gorgeous string arrangements, "Could Be So Happy" saunters along at half speed with a soulful blues sound, and "Had To Go" is an epic seven and a half minutes of slow-burning rock with banjo and violin setting the mood. The breadth of the album is firmly rooted in the band's signature Southern-tinged rock sound, but the increased level of exploration pays big dividends on The Mountain.

The record is nicely balanced and well produced, and even at a length of 50 minutes, the music never outstays its welcome. Through dense walls of sound and moments of emotion and fragility, Heartless Bastards create a more personal brand of rock ‘n’ roll that is as relatable as it is exciting. Also, Wennerstrom proves herself a more than able songwriter, and has her lyrics are given the opportunity to shine above the generally noisy rock sound, and the results are impressive. The Mountain is big, bold, and at times, beautiful, with a style all its own. Heartless Bastards are the real deal and we should all be paying attention.