There was a day, once – a far-less-wise time in life long ago – when i peeled open my eyes and dragged myself, blinking and gasping, onto the sun-soaked concrete of my back patio, alarmed to have survived the volumes of alcohol imbibed the previous night, suffering like a near-dead lizard. When the ground eventually stabilized below me, I hung, stunned, vulnerable and naked to fear, agape in the burning still of ripe, gristly, raw existence. The essence of that moment is the closest I can come to describing the experience of sheer penetrating force unleashed from natural phenomenon, Erika Wennerstrom, when she sings. Hardcore, no-dicking-around, with the bound fury of powerful storms or an incensed deity, Erika Wennerstrom’s got a knife up to the major artery of consciousness.
The songs are autobiographical narrations and notes-to-self, inherently intimate, framed by large-scale, old-school rock. Wennerstrom and the Heartless Bastards engage each with the dire investment of a life-saving maneuver.
Understandably, Erika Wennerstrom’s voice has been compared to Robert Plant tinged with PJ Harvey. If she sounded angry or glum in her former incarnation with Heartless Bastards – a more sparsely flavored Breeders-influenced garage punk – let it be known that Wennerstrom’s gone over the edge into excruciating splendor. If you were incarcerated together, she would be the crazy person to respectfully maintain distance from. No gallons of hooch could propel the gut-wrenching depth Heartless Bastards achieves on The Mountain. On the new songs, Wennerstrom’s attitude remains intensely torrential, yet her furnace burns even hotter internally, resulting in heavy wrath and a down vibe as weighty as an antique deep sea diver’s suit.
All this from a tiny feminine package riddled mysteriously with bursts of testosterone – a figure who, in person, emits delicate fragility. There’s no nibbling at Heartless Bastards. No sauntering over to peek at the geographical layout. To embark on a Heartless Bastards listening journey, be prepared to plummet into otherworldly disorientation.
In Hold Your Head High, a raging alt-country rocker, Wennerstrom lets loose with cocky, whiskey-laden self-assurance. Her songwriting and slurred, gritty, howling, blurry screech is the sister of Lucinda Williams, with whom she toured in years past. Out At Sea sears, a thematically dense, epic rock track. Sway bounces along, breaking to Joplinesque choruses underscored by deep-digging bass.
No doubt Erika Wennerstrom remains the delicate bud of earthy megastar. I have the feeling that, like Lucinda, she’ll be around for a good long time, unfolding petals before devoted audiences who’d readily tear their hearts out for a taste of Heartless Bastards medicine.
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Heartless Bastards hail from Austin by way of Ohio. They’re on a huge summer tour, hitting festivals and billed with Jenny Lewis, Andrew Bird, the Decemberists or the Avett Brothers at any given gig. The Mountain was just released on Fat Possum Records.