In spite of its titular stability, if the Heartless Bastards’ new album, The Mountain, has any single motif, it’s relocation. Where their two previous releases reflect the industrial harshness of their Midwest base, the rootsy ethos of the band’s new geographic locus—Austin, Texas—are a fresh presence on this album. Lead Bastard Erika Wennerstrom has gone “over the hill . . . through concrete and steel”, she explains on “Be So Happy”.
These are changes in geography, but there’s been a shift in personnel as well. At this point, it seems that Wennerstrom is the only stable member of the Heartless Bastards, although the addition of this rhythm section—Dave Colvin on drums and Jesse Ebaugh on bass—actually reunites the trio that recorded the Heartless Bastards’ original demo. All this turbulence, however, is pushing the band across unmarked territory, and three records in, they seem to have found new feet.
The album opens with “The Mountain”, a song with a Bible-thick groove that drives like Crazy Horse on a winding washboard road. This is top-shelf rock and roll, sweetened by moaning steel guitar, and it’s a nice point of reference for the album as a whole, because it takes what we might know about the band’s three-piece sound and augments it with instrumental flourish. (The tetrad of down-home instruments is rounded out elsewhere on the record with mandolin, banjo, and fiddle.) As with the Heartless Bastards’ last two releases, Led Zeppelin is still a point of reference—especially on the Eastern mystic-leaning “Wide Awake”. But this record actually seems more apt to wander the corners of Karen Dalton’s In My Own Time: Wennerstein’s howl is a sharp-edged cousin to Dalton’s, and the fiddle lines of “Had to Go” sound like a sequel to the coda of “Katie Cruel”. Whether this is intentional or not is probably less relevant than the peculiarity whereby both Dalton and Wennerstrom resurrect mountain music with determined, almost claustrophobic intensity.
Mike McCarthy, noted for past projects with Spoon and Patty Griffin, wisely leaves a residue of grim on these recordings. Wennerstrom’s voice—the band’s most powerful instrument—often channels the kind of clipped sonic contours that colored the early guitar solos of Chuck Berry: it’s barely reined-in, it’s deeply expressive, and it tests the edges of the VU meters. The record is not all clanging howls, however. “So Quiet” is quietly beautiful. And “Sway”, the set’s closer, has a bounce that nicely counters the plodding rhythms found elsewhere on the record. In fact, one of the The Mountain‘s few appreciable weaknesses might be its tendency to swerve back towards the familiar. Heartless Bastards listeners have heard songs like “Hold Your Head High” and “Witchy Poo” before; “Be So Happy” is a welcome turn, and further development in this mode is the heart of The Mountain.
Still, the album’s primary impulse is ultimately effective. There have been countless efforts over the past 15 or so years to draw out the connections between punk aesthetics and folk music by cobbling together a noisy hybrid of the two forms. Wennerstrom is content to simply juxtapose the two approaches with ragged enthusiasm, trusting that listeners can recognize the kinship. Chances are we can. Especially when the results are as artful as they are on this record.
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