Singer/guitarist Erika Wennerstrom has taken the Heartless Bastards through a few different lineups since forming the band in 2003, but the story goes that Black Keys drummer Patrick Carney discovered them in an empty Akron, Ohio, bar in 2004, which led to a label deal with Fat Possum Records. Arrow is a debut of sorts for the latest lineup—second guitarist Mark Nathan, bassist Jesse Ebaugh, and drummer Dave Colvin—and it showcases Wennerstrom’s hauntingly gruff voice dancing with dirty blues-rock riffs in a way that’s distinctive and starkly wholesome. The songs feel as though they’ve been marinating for a while, perhaps being contemplated in an isolated cabin somewhere. But this isn’t a singer songwriter showcase. The second track and first single, “Parted Ways,” hits you around the 2:15 mark with Nathan punching out a 30-second solo that could pass as a Mike Campbell excursion on a Tom Petty tune, and then he stomps out the entire last minute with glorious abandon. It’s an early indication that the Bastards are a rocking unit.
This is not to downplay the oomph in Wennerstrom’s powerhouse voice—she’s a definite MVP here. Stripped-down and vulnerable, her drawl floats effortlessly in and out of the songs, through the razor-sharp, alt-twang melodies of “The Arrow Killed the Beast,” and over the lingering strum and hum of “Low, Low, Low.” Throughout the album, I picture Wennerstrom in moments of reckoning, considering the stories behind bittersweet realizations achieved through uncomfortable stretches of living. Her confessions are punctuated and juxtaposed with acoustic layers, Skynyrd inspired solos, and impeccably fuzzed-out electric blues, all the while being complemented by down-home, folksy licks. The melodic guitar parts ooze and groove deeply on songs like “Only for You”—it’s as if the guitar itself is crooning. The album’s outro, “Down in the Canyon,” is finely placed, culminating in a sonic wail—and wall—of dueling axes.
Arrow is a stylistically sound and heartfelt roots-rock album—solid up and down. If that’s what the Bastards’ bow was aimed at, they nailed it. —Tessa Jeffers
Must-hear track: “Parted Ways”