CD Review of The Mountain by Heartless Bastards
Heartless Bastards: The Mountain
Recommended if you like
Concrete Blonde, The Pretenders, Juliana Hatfiel
Label
Fat Possum
Heartless Bastards:
The Mountain

Reviewed by Ed Murray

I
’ve never understood the "garage rock" moniker that gets hung on the Heartless Bastards. Hell, even their Wikipedia entry starts off with "The Heartless Bastards, formed in Dayton, Ohio in 2003, is a garage rock band." They’re nothing like my idea of garage rock, that’s for sure. I guess it’s the fuzzed out guitar sound? I also don’t get the Black Keys comparisons. Hey, just because they’re on the same label, and just because the Black Keys’ Patrick Carney is the guy who passed along the demo Wennerstrom gave him to his Fat Possum chief doesn’t mean the Heartless Bastards sound anything at all like a blues-rocky guitar-drums combo. Puh-lease!

It’s pretty obvious that Heartless Bastards singer/guitarist/leader Erika Wennerstrom wanted to shake things up on The Mountain, her third album for Fat Possum (yeah, you know ‘em as the blues label, a valid rep they’ve been slowly evolving from in the past few years; no, the Heartless Bastards are not a blues band). After the breakup of a 10-year relationship (also her bassist), Wennerstrom moved to Austin, partially out of a desire to work with producer (Mike McCarthy, whose credits include Spoon and ...And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead, among others; Wennerstrom produced the first two HB albums herself), as well as to change her inspirational surroundings, I’m sure. Throw in some additional instrumentation (including mandolins, banjos and other stringed things), a new backing band (they’re still a trio, natch), and some new approaches to songcraft, arrangements and recording, and voila! A whole new Heartless Bastards, right?

Heartless Bastards

Not quite. The Mountain is definitely a progression of Wennerstrom’s ample talents as a songwriter, as a singer and as a musician. But the notable qualities of the Heartless Bastards’ music remain intact: namely, Wennerstrom’s stentorian pipes (think Concrete Blonde’s Johnette Napolitano, or the Pretenders’ Chrissie Hynde – though the HBs sound nothing like either group), her way with words, and the simple-but-seductive sonic blast of her swampy guitar. Also, new drummer Dave Colvin and new bassist Jesse Ebaugh hail from Dayton, Wennerstrom’s hometown. Colvin was their drummer when the Heartless Bastards were a five-piece prior to their signing with Fat Possum. And both Colvin and Ebaugh played on the original demo recordings that brought the band to the Fat Possum roster in the first place.

Still, The Mountain is a bit moodier than 2006’s All This Time, which in itself was a pretty nice progression from the warm blast of 2005’s Stairs and Elevators, their debut. From the neo-Appalachian strands of "Had to Go" to the layered melancholy of "Hold Your Head High," you’ll hear a lot of depth – both emotional and sonic – that, if you’re a fan of the HB’s previous efforts, might take you pleasantly by surprise. Newcomers to Wennerstrom’s world should find plenty to engage them, of course. Overall, this is one Mountain that is easy to scale, and offers a hell of a view.

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