Wennerstrom Ignites Heartless Bastards' Driving Blues Rock

Heartless Bastards -- Arrow -- Partisan Records -- 3 1/2 STARS

In 2009, Heartless Bastards’ frontwoman Erika Wennerstrom appeared on Nerve’s list of the “Forty Sexiest Frontwomen in Rock History,” and deservedly so—in the last seven years, Wennerstrom has established herself as one of rock’s most alluring vocalists. The band’s newest album, “Arrow,” reinforces this reputation. Wennerstrom is in impeccable form as she purrs, yelps, and growls her way through a lyrically weak but otherwise impressive album that draws influences from garage rock, folk, and blues.

“Arrow” begins in the traditional rock and roll style that the Heartless Bastards play so well. “Marathon,” the album opener, is a nostalgic description of life as a journey home. Like “Into the Open,” the opening track on their sophomore album “All This Time,” “Marathon” starts softly with a bluesy ostinato. The track simmers quietly for several minutes before churning upward toward the Heartless Bastard’s trademark driving sound. Above splashing cymbals and soothing guitar, Wennerstrom sings yearningly, “Time, it takes you so far / And I am longing to be back home.”

The band hits a musical highpoint on “Simple Feeling,” a garage rock jam that features sludgy guitars and vigorous tom fills. This song is characterized by reckless abandon and supreme joyfulness, especially during the outstanding bass-driven bridge, when the drums drop out and the guitars take off in a whirlwind of sound.

Besides the staple rock-and-roll and blues tracks, the album explores new musical territory. While “All This Time,” stayed mainly within traditional rock and blues, “Arrow” shows more complex chord changes and intricate song structure. “The Arrow Killed the Beast” is a gentle waltz that makes use of orchestral percussion, and “Skin and Bone,” opens with bongos and a shaker. “Late in the Night” returns to heavy guitar riffs that sound like they came right off of Jack White’s fingers. Each track of “Arrow” offers a new and potentially jarring musical style, but the album remains cohesive due to its strong blues rock roots.

The variation is a welcome addition, but “Arrow” derives its true power from Wennerstrom’s vocals. At times, she possesses quiet vulnerability, but she sheds this timidity in soaring, majestic choruses. As each track gains momentum and complexity, Wennerstrom’s fiery and confident voice holds the music together. On “Only For You,” she shows off her range, slyly slurring her low notes together during the verse while hitting a delicate falsetto during the expansive chorus. From her bright energy of “Parted Ways” to her sultry drawl of “Down In The Canyon,” Wennerstrom’s voice is perhaps the biggest contributor toward making the album so memorable.

But while the instrumentation and vocals remain strong throughout, the band’s shallow lyrics keep the album from being a complete success. Overall, their unimaginative words rely on overused themes. The attempts at heartfelt meaning come up short when the band relies on dull lines such as “Cause you can’t always do it alone / Sometimes you just need a / Need a little help.” Often, as in “Simple Feeling” and “Low Low Low,” the chorus is largely a repetition of the title of the track.

However, the album’s vocals and experimentation make up for its lyrical shortcomings. Due to its huge choruses and infectious melodies, “Arrow” makes for an extremely fun listen. With differing musical styles in every song, the album shows a blues rock band that has evolved immensely since its beginnings. “Arrow” pulls from varied influences without being derivative, and Wennerstrom carries the album with her charisma.

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