Detail from "Day in the Country" from Phil May's Guttersnipes by Phil May, 1896
Dayton, Ohio native Erika Wennerstrom is the mind, heart, and soul of the Heartless Bastards. You can tell because she is the only constant member of the band, for one thing, and she can do something like move to Texas and hire brand new musicians to be the band if she wants. Beyond that, though, the Heartless Bastards' music - a bluesy garage rock that is often compared to the Black Keys - sounds like it comes from a deep place inside Wennerstrom, and this is reflected in the songs and the way that she sings them. The Mountain is the third album by the Heartless Bastards, and from reviews I've seen it suffers a little bit by being compared to the band's previous album, the acclaimed All This Time. I've been told that All This Time was a very personal album, and it can be hard to follow up on a soul-bearing work that fans have really latched onto.
Luckily for me, I haven't heard any of the Heartless Bastards' previous albums, so I am just enjoying this one on its own merits. Wennerstrom's voice is the real draw here, and she writes melodies that make the most of her husky alto. The new musicians backing her are competent but unintrusive, with a few exceptions. The slide guitar on the opening title track, for instance, is layered with other guitar leads to build to a majestic crescendo. From there, the album delivers stripped-down acoustic blues-pop and grubby garage rock and very little in between. The songs are solid, though, and sequenced well, although "Early in the Morning" is a little much with its brainless bashing and stupid couplets (a rare lyrical letdown from Wennerstrom), and "Had to Go" does very little with its seven and a half minute lifespan.
My favorite track is "Out at Sea", a mid-tempo rocker that showcases Wennerstrom's nuanced vocal delivery and has a nice chorus with hard-panned guitars that are reminiscent of producer Mike McCarthy's work with Spoon. The Mountain is a great introduction to the talented Erika Wennerstrom, and hearing it makes me want to track down her earlier albums to find out why people would be disappointed by an album this good.
"Out at Sea" by the Heartless Bastards