Reviewed by Doug Freeman, Fri., Feb. 17, 2012
Heartless BastardsArrow (Partisan)
Heartless Bastards' third album, 2009's The Mountain, opened with the stunning rumble and quake of the title track, a breakout in every sense as Erika Wennerstrom's singing torched a statement of rising defiance and ferocity. Arrow, its follow-up, leads similarly with the epic, six-minute build of "Marathon," an equally if not even more significant evolution for the local quartet, now augmented with second guitarist Mark Nathan to bolster the frontwoman's six-string leadership. Rather than the unexpected power of the previous LP, here, the 10 songs prove finely honed and propelled by purpose, starting with Wennerstrom's dazzling vocal control. "Marathon" mesmerizes in its subtly repetitive curves to crescendo, a height sustained as Wennerstrom pitches her peak with the swagger of "Parted Ways" and the blistering, blues-ripped stomp of "Got To Have Rock and Roll." The front side's a virtuosic showcase for the Ohio native as her voice cuts between piercing trill with guttural bruise ("Only for You") and proto-garage bursts ("Simple Feeling"), plying an incomparably brawny soulfulness that strikes like no less than Janis Joplin clipped with a Midwestern earthiness. The backside settles somewhat in the easy roll of "Skin and Bone" and stiletto-kicked rocker "Late in the Night," but "The Arrow Killed the Beast" surprises with a drone of desert-burnt hallucinations, and "Low Low Low" circles the disc back down with a folky reel. Arrow is shot through with the restlessness of Wennerstrom seeking open spaces and aching into something – anything – new, and it's a journey that strips away everything to rebuild. "And know I'll be home tomorrow," she howls against the burying barrage of guitar on closer "Down in the Canyon." Heartless Bastards return not as they started, but as an undeniable and tightly controlled force of nature.