Album review: Heartless Bastards, 'Arrow'

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Heartless Bastards

Heartless Bastards

3.5 stars (out of 4)

Erika Wennerstrom has always had the kind of voice that causes a commotion, a clear-out-the-room roar that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on a 78-rpm blues recording from the 1930s. But she’s struggled to match that intensity with focused songs and production in the recording studio. Two self-produced albums were followed in 2009 by “The Mountain,” which essentially documented the demise of a longtime personal relationship and the break-up of her band. In transitioning from her home base of Ohio to Texas, she broadened her blues-rock foundation with country- and folk-inflected textures.

“Arrow” (Partisan) expands on those advances with the new quartet she has toured with the last couple of years. Wennerstrom sings about travel and wide open spaces, and the Heartless Bastards make music to match that vagabond vision. There’s plenty of breathing room in these arrangements – acoustic guitars, solitary bass lines, ebb and flow dynamics – and several tunes stretch past five minutes without becoming indulgent.

But the real breakthrough is in the craftsmanship. With producer (and Spoon drummer) Jim Eno, Wennerstrom addresses the central weakness of her previous albums: the lack of a truly indelible song, the kind of melody that can introduce a worthy artist to a bigger audience. “Arrow” delivers the rolling folk-rock of “Skin and Bone,” the surging “Parted Ways,” the unexpected tenderness of “Only For You,” and a chugging, T Rex-like statement of purpose, “Got to Have Rock and Roll.”

“I just don’t look at things the same way now,” Wennerstrom sings on “Parted Ways,” and that fresh perspective makes “Arrow” sound like the work of a top-tier singer who also is developing into a formidable songwriter.

 greg@gregkot.com

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The Grammys 2011