Cue up this album and it’s like 35 years of musical history never happened. Its heart is firmly in the first half of the 1970s. Think of it as a tour: from the Led Zepplin III of “Low Low Low” to the Neil Young of “The Arrow Killed the Beast” to the glam-era Bowie of “Got to Have Rock and Roll.”
And thank God for that. It means rock ‘n’ roll isn’t dead, for much as I like the range of music available these days (if not always the results), it’s still totally awesome to hear a band take guitar, bass and drums and grind out some kick-ass garage rock. Heartless Bastards (chiefly songwriter, singer and vocalist Erika Wennerstrom, the only consistent member of the band) understand that good music doesn’t necessarily need to be experimental or artistic. If a song is strong, it can stand on its own without excessive decoration or processing. (After his comments during the Grammy Awards on Sunday, I can only imagine that Foo Fighter Dave Grohl would agree!)
Arrow is roughly divided into slow grinders or upbeat ravers, often with a strong acoustic guitar element. “Skin and Bones” and “Parted Ways” are great examples of the acoustic rockers, with the latter in particular featuring a wonderful bass line that drives the whole song. (This song was actually released in late-2011 and made my favorite 101 songs of 2011.) “Simple Feeling” (my favorite track) is an intense and dramatic bit with Wennerstrom channeling a combination of Pete Townsend with some slashing guitar and Carlos Santana with Latin-inflected fills. “Late in the Night” (another competitor for my favorite song on this album) is another delicious slice of bluesy rock ‘n’ roll. And “Got to Have Rock and Roll” (as close to a statement of purpose from a band as I’ve heard in a long time) starts with almost the exact drum run that begins Bowie’s “Young Americans.” I can only assume this is intentional!
The grinders occasionally stretch patience. Opener “Marathon” gets the balance right but “The Arrow Killed the Beast” with its ¾ time signature and haunting, whammy bar guitar notes never quite gets off the ground, especially during the “Cortez the Killer” solo section. It just drags on longer than is really necessary. On the other hand, the last song, “Down in the Canyon,” gets it right. Neil would be so proud!
Throughout the album, Wennerstrom’s voice provides pitch-perfect textures. She’s wonderfully expressive with an almost nasal quality that can be alternately wistful or snarly. It’s ideal for this type of music. (I’ll admit that the first time I heard Heartless Bastards, I thought the vocalist was male!)
Rock ‘n’ roll lives, baby! Thanks Erika!