After a move to Austin, constant touring, and several lineup changes, the Heartless Bastards don’t sound so restless anymore. Since starting out as a bluesy bar band in Dayton, Ohio in 2003, the group has rounded its edges bit by bit, and their upward trajectory in both sound and appeal shows on Arrow. It might be the fourth record under the Heartless Bastards name, but it’s truly the first with a solidified backing band for lead singer and songwriter Erika Wennerstrom.
With that solid foundation, the Bastards sound well-oiled, and Wennerstrom is confident as the spotlight-stealer. On their 2009 album The Mountain, she was “Out At Sea,” struggling with the dissolution of a long-term relationship. The band’s playing was suitably ragged, sounding like Led Zeppelin practicing in their mother’s garage. Arrow trades that off-the-cuff energy for a big, radio-ready sheen (partially owed to producer Jim Eno and his Public Hi-Fi studio in Austin). The record flails in places, but the Bastards have never sounded this arena-ready—and from the start, the band’s heart has laid in those rafter-reaching moments.
There are plenty of those to be found here. First single “Parted Ways” rides an easy groove, allowing Wennerstrom to swing for the fences with her trademark voice. Her phrasing can be downright bizarre, but there’s no denying the power of her upper register. She wraps her words around the melody with the ease of an archetypal frontwoman. The ‘70s boogie of “Got To Have Rock And Roll” is carefree and breezy, yet it packs a punch thanks Wennerstrom’s passion (and that gnarly bottom end). In the past, the band hid behind the fuzz, but Eno helps bring many of their workmanlike strengths to the forefront.
If The Mountain was about a breakup, Arrow finds Wennerstrom in a state of renewal. She’s moony-eyed on the blue-eyed soul of “Only For You,” dialing back the tough-girl image for a moment of tenderness that’s a new fit for such a hard-rocking band. When she happily sings “my future is bright” on the front-porch folk epic “Low Low Low,” you believe her. She’s discovered a level of comfort, both in her personal life and with her fellow musicians.
Yet that comfort can get too cushy. The rockers in the album’s midsection suffer from too many similarities, both production-wise and in their structures. A song like “Simple Feeling” snarls out of the gate only to sag under the weight of repetitive choruses. Arrow is certifiably epic in its sound, but it doesn’t need six-and-a-half acoustic ballads like “The Arrow Killed The Beast.” Album-opener “Marathon” sets the tone, with Wennerstrom intoning, “we all want to belong to something more than ourselves.” It’s a nice sentiment, one that the band effectively conveyed with the spaceyness of “The Mountain,” but for all its big tent aspirations, Arrow can’t quite find its mark.
That’s largely beside the point. The Heartless Bastards’ blustering dino-rock is inherently fun, even when the group lets the shadows creep in. But on Arrow, it’s more fun when they swagger around like the road-tested ramblers they’ve become.