Artist: Heartless Bastards
Don’t be fooled by the band’s name; Heartless Bastards is legitimately full of heart. The well-established, highly-acclaimed, and relentlessly touring Austin, Texas-based, garage-rock/Americana band was founded in 2003 by singer-songwriter and guitarist Erika Wennerstrom and its current line-up includes Mark Nathan (guitar), Jesse Ebaugh (bass), and Dave Colvin (drums). Erika has been the mainstay and creative force of Heartless Bastards over the years, guiding the outfit through various band member iterations, musical style changes, and the crafting of 5 studio albums.
Originally from Dayton and Cincinnati, Ohio, Erika moved to Austin after the release of the first two garage-rock-oriented Heartless Bastards albums. She recorded 3rd album, The Mountain, which came out in 2009, as a solo artist with session musicians. That album incorporated country music instruments into the band’s original rock ‘n’ roll sound. After reconstituting Heartless Bastards as a four-piece and signing to Brooklyn imprint Partisan Records, Erika and company released their 2012 breakthrough album Arrow, a grab bag of indie classic rock and country-attuned tunes. Fifth album Restless Ones, slated for release on June 16th on Partisan Records, continues the band’s rock ‘n’ roll and Americana evolution.
The involving story-teller “Wind Up Bird” kicks off the album with a psych-rock edge of distorted guitar growl, dynamically clambering drums, and emphatic cymbal smash. On the quieter verses, Erika bemoans the fact that she was taken in by a yarn-spinnin’ sweet talker and that she should have known better than to be suckered by this con artist who “…fell from the sky / searching for comfort and lonely people.” As the song unwinds, its intensity rises with addition of an unspooling electrif(r)ied guitar line.
Like most of the songs on Restless Ones, second-in-line “Gates of Dawn” mainly hews to ‘verse, chorus, verse’ and ‘quiet verse/loud chorus’ structures. It starts out of the gate with strummed acoustic guitar and Erika intoning in a vulnerable voice that “I have awoken…” from a harsh winter and it’s “…such a heavy load / this seven years of slumber.” An up-tempo, but steady gait of drums and cymbal crash comes in, along with electric guitar and bass line. The familiar pattern is broken near the song’s finish when Erika breaks out with an emotive exclamatory refrain of “I fade into the sun.” amid a more prominent bass line and continual guitar frisson.
The laid-back garage-rock shamble of “Black Cloud” is a showcase for Erika’s distinctively weathered, but malleable voice and illuminating lyrics like “You gotta please yourself ‘cause / no one’s there to catch you / when it’s all said and done.” On Americana number “Hi-Line”, Erika delves into the memories of her youth, of being innocent and free, smelling the pines, and running through the tall grass. She wants “…to be home / I’m so lost without you here / here in my life.” Picked acoustic guitar and the sound of other strings, like possibly fiddle, brighten the tone, along with the brisk drum pace, whisk of brushed cymbals, percussive jingle, and Erika’s sweet “Oohs” at the end of the tune.
The central theme of Restless Ones and Erika’s own hard-won outlook is spotlighted through “Journey”’s succinct lyrics of “…it’s suddenly clear / The journey’s the destination.” Alt-country ballad “Pocket Full Of Thirst” slows it down to a sway of sporadic guitar strum, a gentle beat, and tick of cymbals as Erika sing-talks in an upturned, vintage register about hiding her true self so as not to get hurt in a relationship. Yet, even if you “…turn over leaves of gold / the roots, they still remain.” Haunting vocal harmonies shadow Erika’s plaintive tone on the chorus segments of the song.
On the lyrics-centered “Into the Light”, the persistent strut of short electric guitar riffs, plunked piano notes, drums, and cymbal taps accompany Erika’s ripe and drawn out declarations of “I’m gonna find my place in the sun / whether I’m by myself or with someone / I’ve gotta just keep on tryin’.” Erika and her bandmates travel back to the 70s on the lightly trippy, highly textured “The Fool”, using a different set of instruments (or at least using them in a different way) than on their previous songs. Erika recalls Christine McVie of Fleetwood Mac as she confesses “Love is a game / I don’t know how to play / I’m the fool.” A pronounced bass line run, constant cymbal shimmer, beguiling guitar chime, a dreamy weave of synths, and occasional backing harmonies create a hazy, dazed atmosphere.
“Eastern Wind” returns with the rock, starting at a simmering level, but building up to a more blazing intensity on the chorus sections. The kinetic drums carry the motion forward where at times Erika is joined by additional voices as she pushes through the lyrics “…throw caution to the wind / …you were restless ones.” A searing guitar line appears near the end of the song as Erika vividly emotes in a longing tone and, for a brief moment, holds her highest vocal pitch on the album. Restless Ones closes with the comedown of “Tristessa” which focuses on just a warped, sustained cycling of noise and Erika’s rich and pressed out vocals that are reminiscent of k.d. lang when Erika goes for maximum expression. It’s an odd way to wrap up the album, with its downer lyrics of “Crash inside my soul / the rosy golden angel of my days.” The journey so far has been eventful and enlightening, but if this is the destination, it would be better to keep on ramblin’!