Thursday July 18, 2013
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Heartless Bastards *** Brimming with confidence and creativity, Arrow sees Heartless Bastards pushing their distinctive sound forward with their most eclectic, energetic collection thus far. The album – the Austin, Texas-based band’s first release with Partisan Records – is marked as ever by singer/guitarist/songwriter Erika Wennerstrom’s remarkable voice, at turns primal and pleading, heartfelt and heroic. Songs like “Parted Ways” and the searing “Low Low Low” expertly capture the Bastards’ multi-dimensional rock in all its strength and spirit. Following upon the difficult introspection of 2009’s acclaimed third album, The Mountain, Arrow stands as a powerhouse new beginning for Heartless Bastards. “The Mountain was me going through some things after being in a relationship for nine years,” Wennerstrom says. “This album is kind of like me being comfortable again.” Arrow serves as the recorded debut of Heartless Bastards’ current iteration, their latest and greatest line-up since Wennerstrom first convened the band back in 2003. Drummer Dave Colvin and bassist Jesse Ebagh – both of whom played on the Bastards’ first-ever demo recordings – returned to the fold in order to play live behind The Mountain. Soon after embarking on tour, Wennerstrom decided to put more meat on the band’s raw bones by enlisting guitarist Mark Nathan, who had ostensibly come aboard to handle the live sound. “I wanted to add another guitar,” Wennerstrom says, “so I asked Mark, ‘What do you think of joining the band?’ and he was into it. I’ve always planned on being a four-piece, but it just takes a while to find somebody that you feel you click with. I’d rather have it be stripped down than just have somebody there for the sake of having them there.” The expanded line-up brought additional color and dynamism to Heartless Bastards’ already colorfully dynamic rock ‘n’ roll. With their sound honed to a razor’s edge by night after night of playing live, Heartless Bastards were soon ready to record for posterity. But having spent so much of the past year on tour, Wennerstrom knew she needed some downtime in order to turn her musical ideas into fully-fledged songs. In Fall 2010, she embarked on the first of what would be several solo road trips designed to clear the cobwebs and help focus her songwriting. Wennerstrom visited friends and family in Ohio, hung out at All Tomorrow’s Parties in the Catskills, spent alone time in Arkansas, a lake cabin in the Allegheny Mountains and at a ranch in West Texas. “It was really nice,” she says. “I didn’t feel like I was getting much done, but I realized that a lot of that experience ended up being reflected in the songs. I didn’t get a lot of the writing done right then, on that trip, but I feel like getting out there really helped me later on.” 2011 saw Heartless Bastards hitting the highway once more, taking the opportunity to road-test Wennerstrom’s new songs on a bare-bones “acoustic” tour as well on a series of dates supporting Drive-By Truckers. The band set to work on Arrow just two short days after their return to Austin, a revved-up, well- oiled rock ‘n’ roll machine. “We just went right in,” Wennerstrom says. “There’s a definite sound that comes from a band that’s been on the road and I really feel like it’s translated on the album.” The band spent the next month with producer Jim Eno at his Public Hi-Fi home studio. Eno – known far and wide as the drummer in Spoon – guided the Bastards through the recording process, helping them to infuse their myriad influences and ambitions into the songs. “Jim was really great to work with,” Wennerstrom says. “He asked me what kind of approach I wanted to take towards each song and we’d take it in that direction. It was like, what were you thinking for each song, as far as inspiration?” Arrow showcases the depth and breath of the band’s indelible sound, with songs like “Got To Have Rock and Roll” and “Down In The Canyon” lighting upon spaghetti western film scores, Seventies soul, psychedelia, funk, blues, glam, and mudhole-stomping hard rock. Two years of nearly non-stop touring resulted in an astonishing musical telepathy among Heartless Bastards, with all four players intuitively able to craft Wennerstrom’s songs into maximum form. “I’m so in synch with this band,” she says. “Songs seem to go where I want them to go and it doesn’t take a whole lot of time. Even though I’m not very communicative, they know me well enough and get it.” Kicking off with the widescreen vision of “Marathon,” the album is more wholly fleshed than anything in the Bastards’ prior oeuvre, while simultaneously securing the band in all their straight-on, unadorned majesty. Arrow is the glorious sound of a four-piece rock ‘n’ roll outfit in full flight, with little outside accompaniment bar conga player Matthew “Sweet Lou” Holmes’s performance on the evocative “Skin and Bone.” “It’s a pretty stripped-down album in a lot of ways,” Wennerstrom says. “There’s really not a lot added to these tracks, they’re really mostly live takes. We talked about adding things, but when we listened back, we thought, ‘I don’t know if this really needs more.’” With Arrow complete, Heartless Bastards are now itching to get back out there. Inveterate road warriors, the band is at their electrifying best while on stage, making deep connections with both their audience and their music. “It can be hard at times,” Wennerstrom says, “but I love it. I love playing on stage. It’s that hour and a half, that time that we’re up there, that I love most. There’s a lot of sitting around, trying to find things to fill in the time, but then we finally start to play, it’s so worth it and rewarding.” Arrow sees Heartless Bastards doing what all great bands do – furthering their artistic scope with each successive effort. With its impressive range and undeniable vigor, the album flies straight, honest and true, the finest distillation yet of this extraordinary rock ‘n’ roll band’s fiery, unforgettable sound. “I feel like this is the strongest record I’ve ever done,” Wennerstrom says. “I feel like playing with these guys, us all being so connected, really helped make it so fully realized. I’m really, really happy with it.” *** Writer *** Writer’s James and Andy Ralph are brothers, and if you couldn’t see it in their faces, you’ll see it written all over them, sometimes even literally. The two share a tattoo— the words “The Brothers Ralph” surrounding an anchor, like two sailors navigating the same sea—but you can also hear their brotherhood all over their music. Andy’s voice cascades and careens around and across James’ almost impossibly hard floor tom hits, and when the two join together to shout a chorus or a particularly important lyric on their album Brotherface, the two create a sound that’s much more than two boys playing songs together. Growing up in Yucaipa, California and cutting their teeth, drumsticks and guitar strings in San Diego, Writer has taken the Ralphs all over the country on tour with bands like Cults, finally inspiring and allowing them to set down roots, although however temporary or permanent they may be remains to be seen, in Brooklyn. Although their songs still bring forth the mermaids, highways and pretty girls of California, with a new practice space and a collection of new tracks, their sound is evolving. You can feel it, too, when they play live. Months of touring, taking risks on different rooms and sound guys, has given Writer a newfound confidence but also a newfound freedom, making their performances as exuberant in a brand new, giant venue as it would be in one of their old haunts back in San Diego. The songs on Brotherface are a unique combination of anthemic and psychedelic; not meandering, definitely structured, but also bubbling and swirling with layers of sound that seem far more complicated that what two guys can make standing alone on a stage. The aquarium-sound of “Miss Mermaid” makes love into a slow swim, while the energetic gallop and brisk harmonies of “Cash For Gold” call to mind the feeling of driving across and empty expanse of highway with your friends late at night, shouting into the dark just to hear your own voice. Older brother Andy is an emerging contemporary artist as well as being a multi- instrumentalist and songwriter, and you can hear it. Both the lyrics and the melodies contain multitudes of colors, and the way they blend calls to mind the mindful sweep of a painter’s brush across canvas. It’s a balancing act between melody and rhythm, something the pair have mastered to the point that it wouldn’t be surprising to hear that those things about siblings and telepathy had some truth to them. James, who is the younger of the two, smiles behind his drum kit before attacking it with a force that’s not at all violent, but nonetheless powerful and precise, building structure over the many layered sounds. Don’t make that think the two don’t work together, though. Their band was built our of making silence into something, and in that they are entirely collaborative, Andy lending inspiration to James’ drum parts and James suggesting melodies, as well as occasionally playing keyboards with one hand and the drums with the other. After extensive touring, the pair will be self-releasing a first pressing of Brotherface in October, writing new songs, and preparing to set off on yet another tour in the fall. They’re also continuing to settle in to New York City, and watching their sound change as they continue to write. “The sound keeps getting fuzzier,” Andy says, adding, “which both of us are into.” And surely if the past has been any indication, the two are right, as brother music is always better than music made alone.