New Album, New Musical Vision
By Alan Sculley
Some listeners considered The Mountain, the 2009 CD from the group the Heartless Bastards, a musical departure for the group. Yes, there were still plenty of garage-ish rock moments that carried over from the group’s first two CDs. But on The Mountain, Heartless Bastards singer/guitarist and songwriter Erika Wennerstrom spread her stylistic wings in notable ways.
The Mountain saw Wennerstrom adding some rootsier elements to the rocking sound of the first two CDs, Stairs and Elevators (2005) and All This Time (2007). On the title song, for instance, pedal steel guitar and banjo brought some country tones to what was an otherwise epic rocker. Wennerstrom also showed a quieter side with ballads like “Could Be So Happy,” which was mostly Wennerstrom accompanied just by acoustic guitar, and ”So Quiet,” on which gentle acoustic guitar and violin helped create a pretty and vulnerable moment for the CD.
The widening stylistic range has now extended to the new CD, Arrow (release date: Feb. 14), which is the first Heartless Bastards album to feature the four-piece lineup that came together just before touring behind The Mountain began.
Wennerstrom is now joined by drummer Dave Colvin, bassist Jesse Ebagh and guitarist Mark Nathan, and together they have created the most musically diverse Heartless Bastards CD yet. Its 10 songs range from the catchy compact rock of “Parted Ways” to the soulful overtones of “Only For You” to the punchy, riff-heavy rock of “Got To Have Rock And Roll” (a song Wennerstrom said is meant to echo the glammy rock of T. Rex), to the lightly twang acoustic ballad “Low Low Low.”
It might even be tempting to view today’s Heartless Bastards as a different band with a different musical vision from the one that recorded the first two CDs.
But Wennerstrom says that is not the case. The Mountain and Arrow just more fully reflect the more diverse range of musical influences she’s always had, but couldn’t express on the first two Heartless Bastards albums.
“I just really like trying new things,” said Wennerstrom in a phone interview on Tuesday. “I feel like I have very broad musical tastes, as well as all of the (current) members of the band. So working with the band, it makes it pretty easy to just go in different directions.”
In fact, Wennerstrom said Stairs and Elevators and All This Time might have sounded more like the two most recent CDs had she just been more schooled in how to use the studio to achieve different sounds and textures.
“Learning how to record and get certain sounds is a real challenge, and I feel like I’m starting to figure out how to create a record in the direction that I sort of envision,” she said. “I mean, for the first album, it’s like we just sort of set up, recorded everything miked the same way, did everything the same. So every song has sort of the same recording sound. Had we like changed the way we miked things and done things like that, those albums probably could have sounded a bit more diverse as well.”
That’s not to say there hasn’t been a notable musical progression for the Heartless Bastards. And in a literal sense, Wennerstrom actually made a clean break from the first two CDs before she began writing for The Mountain.
In 2008, the native of Dayton left her adopted hometown of Cincinnati and moved to Austin, Texas after ending her nine-year relationship with Mike Lamping, who was the bassist for the Heartless Bastards. The band’s drummer, Kevin Vaughn, was also left behind as Wennerstrom dissolved the lineup from Stairs and Elevators and All
She recorded The Mountain under the Heartless Bastards name despite not having a band at the time. Instead, she worked with studio musicians on that CD.
Thematically, The Mountain reflected the upheaval in Wennerstrom’s life, as some of its songs dealt the emotional fallout in the aftermath of her breakup with Lamping.
The Arrow, to a point, picks up where The Mountain left off, as songs like “Parted Ways” and “Low Low Low” (with its lines “I’m getting used to being alone/I’m getting used to being on my own”) capture a woman who is regaining her emotional footing.
“It takes awhile to get over a long relationship,” said Wennerstrom. “We were together nine years. So I really think a lot of this album is me feeling comfortable again and sort of positive and independent.
“In a lot of ways, Arrow would be a sequel to The Mountain, except I feel it’s more like past that,” she said.
Wennerstrom and her bandmates are proud enough of Arrow that they plan to play the entire CD at shows on its winter/spring tour. Wennerstrom said she is also looking forward to seeing how the band continues to gel as the musicians continue to play shows together.
“We all got along really well and we have a lot of similar tastes in music, which is a very broad taste,” said Wennerstrom. “But we’re drawn toward the same things. So I knew we would work together really well.”
Reach DCP freelance writer Alan Sculley at AlanSculley@DaytonCityPaper.com.