When popular music historians look at the greatest musical innovation of the 2000s, they’re going to point to the garage rock revolution. In those years, bands like The White Stripes, the Shins, Interpol and Yeah Yeah Yeahs helped to free rock from riff-less indie pioneers, repetitive punk-pop and the looming shadow of the Insane Clown Posse.
The new rock groups had posture, swagger and a ferocious snarling sexuality that spawned a thousand knockoff groups that grasped at what the original groups were able to pull off. Some of them, however, actually grabbed hold of something special and carved out a niche.
Heartless Bastards started out in 2005 with a little bit of country, a little bit of rock and roll and more bursting sexual angst than the entire run of “Donny and Marie.” Lead singer Erika Wennerstrom combined the gentle whispery lyrics of femme fatales like Amanda Palmer with the bursting energy and sexuality of earth mother Neko Case to drive the band to fame, showcasing their work on several episodes of Friday Night Lights.
Their newest album, “Arrow,” on new label Partisan Records, had lofty expectations to bring the band to new underground success. For the most part, it’s a success, despite some stumbles along the way.
The first thing that hits listeners is going to be the sonic assault of the record. Even at its gentlest, “Arrow” hits you like a whiskey soaked punch near closing time. Heartless Bastards combine the best parts of The Eagles, The White Stripes and Ryan Adams into a blend that’s as much garage rock as alt-country. For those who don’t mind their guitar riffs to sound dangerously close to “Deliverance” or their percussion to be off a washboard are going to find something to really sink into.
The musical choices don’t mire the band lyrically, however. Wennerstrom combines non-sequiturs and breathy poetry to create lyrics that form a mood more than communicate complex emotions. On “Skin and Bone,” she croons, “tearing up the sea/ and all I want to be/ was your/ I want it to be.” For some, lines like this are going to be too much, but on the whole, the spirit of remorse and loss comes through despite the lyrics.
There are points where Heartless Bastards do stumble, however. Their longer songs, such as “The Arrow Killed the Beast” and “Down in the Canyon” go too far both lyrically and sonically to create a mood and end up being, well, boring. Both tracks feel like a dirge and not in a compelling way.
On the whole, it’s nice to see a formerly unknown group head to a major independent label. Although they may not be burning up the radio waves, Heartless Bastards have carved themselves a place in the new rock canon, right between a dive bar, a Denny’s and a strip club. “Arrow” is an utterly sexy, beautifully boozy and occasionally disgusting dive into a gin soaked America and it couldn’t be a better bad place to be.