On their stunning fourth album, Arrow, Austin-by-way-of-Cincinnati hard-rock warriors Heartless Bastards have beefed-up their bluesy sonic palette with rainbows of color, branching out with soulful, psychedelic textures as wide-open as a West Texas sky.
On the band's three previous albums (including their 2009 critical breakthrough, The Mountain), vocalist/songwriter Erika Wennerstrom and her ever-shifting rhythm section attacked their songs like they were holding a grudge, pummeling into the red with distortion and reckless abandon. But Arrow is the work of a much more confident band—one with nothing to prove, operating with enviable ease. The album's arrangements are refreshingly spacious, with pristine guitars and voices floating by in effortless waves, free of the clutter and crunch that plague so many bands saddled with the garage-rock tag.
Part of that confidence comes from the band's latest lineup shift, but Arrow also owes much of its sonic expansiveness to Wennerstrom's newly decluttered mind—a Zen-like focus, both personal and musical, that came from a month-long road trip.
"I was having a lot of trouble focusing and getting my thoughts out in songs," Wennerstrom says. "I drove on a trip for a month by myself. I stopped along the way to visit friends, so it wasn't a completely isolated month, but I really felt like that added a lot to the inspiration of the album as well. Out in West Texas, that inspired a lot of the imagery—with ‘The Arrow and the Beast,' a lot of those lyrics reflect the landscapes, the amber-colored sunsets and skylines. And with ‘Parted Ways,' there's the desert, the air filled with dust. Driving out on this ranch I stayed at in West Texas—when you drive up to the bunkhouse, you kick up dust everywhere. A lot of that imagery was added to the album."
The driving, the reflection, the vast Texas landscape—that sense of freedom had been a long time coming from Wennerstrom. Though the band has always revolved around her songs, Heartless Bastards' music requires the heft and raw majesty of a true, working band. Keeping a lineup together hasn't been easy, though. The group started out as a quartet, playing local bars around Cincinnati, and when a copy of the songwriter's demo ended up in the hands of Black Keys drummer Patrick Carney, Wennerstrom and company found themselves signed to trend-setting indie label Fat Possum. Band members arrived and fled in a furious succession, but Wennerstrom kept developing her chops, both onstage and in the studio, leading to early buzz on the band's first two albums, 2005's Stairs and Elevators and 2006's All This Time. But after ending her nine-year romance with original bassist Mike Lamping, Wennerstrom found herself in a state of emotional turmoil, so she packed up in November 2007 and moved to Austin. The Mountain, the band's next effort, wouldn't arrive for another three years.
"When I worked on The Mountain, I was just going through a hard time, adjusting to living down there," Wennerstrom says. "But I didn't have a band yet again, so I was just writing songs in my apartment by myself."
Through isolation came inspiration, and The Mountain's cathartic ruckus brought the band both widespread critical adoration and newfound commercial opportunities, including late-night talk-show spots and tons of TV licensing. Career-wise, things were going pretty well for these Bastards, but Wennerstrom still lacked personal closure. However, things started to change once she finally got a consistent lineup together: guitarist Mark Nathan, bassist Jesse Ebaugh, and drummer Dave Colvin, who all appear on Arrow.
"With Arrow, I've been touring with the same band for three, three-and-a-half years," Wennerstrom says. "I've known Jesse and Dave for, gosh, 12 or 15 years, and Mark has been touring with us since The Mountain. And I just feel like we're a good team, getting along great and enjoy playing music together. And Arrow is almost like, in a sense, my journey of getting back to myself and who I am post-relationship, and sort of feeling really comfortable with myself on my own."
Recording with Spoon drummer/producer Jim Eno, Heartless Bastards embraced that chemistry. The band's open exchange of musical influences has given Wennerstrom confidence to explore a wealth of new ideas. Droning, psychedelic "Simple Feeling" finds the band channeling the Beatles; on "Only for You," Wennerstrom aimed for a Curtis Mayfield-styled vocal effect; and the singer describes "Down in the Canyon" as "Black Sabbath meets Neil Young." The most specific influences came out on the stirring epic ballad "The Arrow and the Beast," which was inspired by Ennio Morricone and Lee Hazelwood and Nancy Sinatra. "They always have those melodies that sound like someone's singing from a mountaintop," Wennerstrom says.
She can sense that Arrow is an important album for the band, but making a breakout effort was never exactly on her agenda.
"I don't know if it's specifically trying to make any kind of statement or anything, but all I know is I'm really comfortable with the band I'm playing in now," she says. And appropriately enough, the Heartless Bastards have never sounded this much like a band—period.