In an alternate musical reality, Heartless Bastards would be rewarded for their years of hard work and toil by getting the chance to tour arenas, headline Coachella and Bonnaroo, and grace the cover of Rolling Stone. If this sounds like a familiar scenario for you, it should, because it’s the trajectory the Black Keys have followed over the past several years, as they have worked their two-man power blues stomp from the dirty basements of Akron, Ohio to the big production studios of Hollywood and Nashville. In the span of a few years, they’ve morphed from obscure local favorites to indie-rock darlings to the modern equivalent of full-blown rock and roll stars. Not to pick on Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney, because they do deserve the glory, and they do in fact, rock. However, they really shouldn’t be allowed to reap all the glory, because I’ll venture to say that Heartless Bastards may have one-upped the Keys at their own game with Arrow and made an album full of dirty blues and snarl that’s just a little more bluesy and ferocious than El Camino, which has become this year’s standard for rock album of the year.
Erika Wennerstrom has always possessed the perfect voice for a rock and roll frontwoman. Now, she has the musical muscle to back it up. There’s an element of catharsis in this album, the sound of Wennerstrom and the band letting loose and releasing the pent-up frustrations that may have been plaguing them both personally and professionally. She herself acknowledges this in the opening track, “Marathon”. Over a slowly building crescendo that mirrors its title’s concept, she sings, “sometimes you just need a little help on this long way home”. For Wennerstrom it may be both a nod to her romantic reawakening after the dissolution of her nine-year relationship or it could be a nod to her bandmates, drummer Dave Colvin, bassist Jesse Ebagh and guitarist Mark Ethan, who show up here to fully flesh out the soundscape and vision that erupt in full over the course of Arrow‘s 10 tracks and 52 minutes. Whatever the case may be, the results are awesome.
There is now another full-fledged guitarist to duplicate on record the sound that has made the Bastards’ live shows so gratifying. Check out Ethan’s scales on “Parted Ways”, his power chords of “Got to Have Rock and Roll”, and the histrionics he provides on “Simple Feeling” for a good measure of what he brings to the band. His presence also allows Wennerstrom to focus on being front and center. With the leads ably handled, she can anchor a song with her lyrics and rhythm playing and take a roaring solo when the time calls. And her lyrics seem more tightly focused. She sings of life’s complexities and challenges in ways that seem universal without being overbearing or trite. Her recollections of visiting old haunts in “Skin And Bone”, the charged-up fever of a drunken reverie in “Late At Night” and the resigned acceptance that rings through “Low Low Low” all resonate in a heartfelt and pure manner, devoid of any preening or posturing.
For Heartless Bastards, Arrow represents a triumph. It’s an unabashed rock record, yet it seeks profundity and wonderment. There seem to be some tough days of contemplation and reckoning involved in its creation, but the end result is utterly triumphant. Over ominous chords at the end of the album, Wennerstrom sings of the “hour getting late”. Maybe urgency was another element in the creation of this album. Like the Black Keys, she has paid her dues. If there’s ever a time to throw all your cards on the table and go for broke, this is it. It worked for Auerbach and Carney on a global scale. Chances are that won’t be the case for Wennerstrom and Co., but if they keep making music like this, they’ll be making new fans decades from now.