If you think the regional influence on indie rock has waned with the Internet, imagine an act like Heartless Bastards emerging anywhere else but Ohio. If Erika Wennerstorm was a Brooklynite instead of a Midwesterner, her hard blues rootsy rock would probably be seen as fake. (This problem has never affected Jeff Tweedy, who is from a similar metropolis but one that happens to be more conveniently located on the map.) Yet in the Heartland, Heartless Bastards has enough clout to never have its legitimacy questioned.
On Fat Possum, the label of the Black Keys, Junior Kimbrough, Wavves, and R.L. Burnside, Wennerstorm has moved to Austin hoping that The Mountain will be her breakthrough album. And The Mountain has certain gotten more hype than any of her previous two albums, even if it’s gotten a little more hype than it deserves. Wennerstorm, who sings, writes, and plays guitars for Heartless Bastards with a revolving group of guests, produces no songs, stylings, or real innovations that haven’t been done better by her predecessors, which include the Black Keys and the Kills as much as Kimbrough and Burnside.
What sets the Heartless Bastards apart is Wennerstorm’s voice, which produces a sound that is beautiful, ragged, and reserved. Wennerstorm has a muscular voice that never gets gutteral, too tough to be Patsy Cline or Dusty Springfield but too streamlined to be Isaac Brock or Bob Dylan. Her range is so dynamic that it almost seems like she’s improvising her singing notes on the spot, and she goes from male tenor to almost soprano in seconds. The lyrics are designed not so much for poetry as they are for managing the nuances of Wennerstorm’s inflections.
Nonetheless, there is a hint in the lyrics of an overwhelming fear of making it too big to lose her self-perpetuating Midwestern resolve. With hiding in the woods coming back in favor in the indie word (I’m looking at you, Fleet Foxes and Bon Iver), going into urbanity to make it has taken a weird twist on the That Girl image. It’s almost like you go there because you have to, not because you want to.
Of course, Austin’s too distinct a location for Wennerstorm to worry about losing her toughness, which is a shame. The Heartless Bastards are much better on the alt side of the alt-country dynamic. Her voice may actually be closest to David Bowie, above all things, just on the other side of the androgyny spectrum. Her rockers are better than her old-timey songs, and she’s more fun when she’s angry than somber. If the Heartless Bastards are going to improve on The Mountain, Wennerstorm is going to have to swallow her modesty and let herself be cool. Hey, Devo and Pere Ubu (and plenty of others) came from Ohio too.