After Heartless Bastards’ 2009 album, bandleader Erika Wennerstrom pressed the reset button.
She reconnected with family through a series of solo road trips, rejiggered her band’s roster to reinvent its sound, returned to her relentless touring schedule and, two days home from tour, retreated back into the studio.
The result was singer-songwriter/guitarist Wennerstrom finding her center and refining her songwriting in the form of this year’s “Arrow.”
Marked by decidedly more introspective lyrics, 2009’s “The Mountain” was born from the demise of a nine-year relationship. “Arrow” reclaims some remnants from “The Mountain” but in a more streamlined package.
Indicative of its title, “The Mountain” is defined by its grandiosity, while “Arrow’s” aim is precision.
“The Mountain,” tracked by Spoon producer Mike McCarthy, saw the Texas-based Bastards opening up their sound to include country music aesthetics, adding violin, banjo, mandolin, and steel guitar to the standard rock ‘n’ roll instrumentation.
The Bastards were coached through “Arrow” recording sessions with the help of Spoon drummer Jim Eno with limited outside accompaniment from conga player Matthew “Sweet Lou” Homes’ performance on the rootsy acoustic guitar driven “Skin and Bones.”
The remainder of the album is handled wholly by Wennerstrom and her band, which was rejoined by drummer Dave Colvin and bassist Jesse Ebaugh – who both played on the Bastards’ embryonic demo tapes. Rounding out this new lineup is Mark Nathan, bringing an extra layer of guitar and soaring solos to the mix.
Using fewer colors on its palette than its predecessor, “Arrow” reveals more diversity than the Bastards have shown in previous outings.
With Eno providing a signature production quality that is both straight up and dense, “Arrow” intermittently strays from the countrified garage rock that has come to embody the Bastards, veering at times toward spaghetti Western film scores, 1970s soul, psychedelia, funk, blues, glam, hard rock and rare groove.
Throughout the record the one constant that sews the varying influences together is Wennerstrom’s distinctly rough-hewn vocal heft.
The nourishment from visiting family and friends in her native Ohio; the rollicking parties in the Catskills; and the alone time at a lake cabin in the Allegheny Mountains – the various experiences that informed the songwriting on “Arrow” are reflected in Wennerstrom’s voice with alarming aplomb.
By stripping away some of the grandeur of “The Mountain,” Heartless Bastards hit the target with “Arrow.”