There are some distinct female voices in the rock industry. Chrissie Hynde, Patti Smith, Joan Jett, Debbie Harry, and Grace Slick each possess a set of pipes that no other vocalist could emulate. You can add the name Erika Wennerstrom to that list. Wennerstrom, the leader of the Cincinnati trio known as the Heartless Bastards (damn, I love that name), has a distinct vocality and strength that is easily recognizable after just one listen.
The idea behind Fat Possum Records was to find blues artists in northern/central Mississippi who wouldn’t be touched by another, more formal label, and get them exposure. Label cohorts Matthew Johnson (one of the label’s creators) and sidekick Bruce Watson were sort of the Broadway Danny Rose tag-team of the Delta. The label had a good thing going with R.L. Burnside, Junior Kimbrough, and T-Model Ford, their “stars.” But Kimbrough and Burnside have passed on, and Ford celebrates his 81st birthday this year, and the label’s initial ideal is dying off with the bluesmen on which it was founded. So instead, Johnson and Watson have taken to work on the garage rock sounds that permeate the Midwest. They landed the red-hot Black Keys for a three-CD deal, and also have Elephant Boy on their roster. Added to that, the discovery of the Heartless Bastards is going to wind up being a masterstroke by the label.
Wennerstrom (who also plays guitar and keyboards), bassist Mike Lamping, and drummer Kevin Vaughn earned mucho well-deserved critical praise for their 2005 Fat Possum debut, Stairs and Elevators. The album seemed to be borne out of desperation as anything else. All three members were working other jobs at the time (Lamping worked at his family’s janitorial supply company while Vaughn delivered pizzas), and the starkness of their situation reflected mightily on Stairs, as the music took on a sparse tone. What filled in those gaps were Wennerstrom’s vocals—clear and powerful, without having to resort to histrionics. The lady is blessed with a set of pipes made for song. What makes their second disc, All This Time, a marked improvement over the original is the music comes closer to filling the gaps.
A prime example of the subtle differences between the two albums takes place in the opening seconds of All This Time. The first track, “Into the Open”, starts with a piano. It’s a haunting chordal shuffle that moves in and out through the song and lays the foundation from which the band grows. The Heartless Bastards still wind up pummeling you, but instead of firing their biggest weapon first, they inflict a series of small blows before unleashing their full-on assault.
The album’s ten tracks follow the same pattern, and each has its own memorable melody. “Searching for the Ghost” has “indie single” written all over it. “Finding Solutions” makes no bones about its heaviness, but in contrast, the next song, “All This Time”, has a bouncy feel. The trio allows for more shades of gray to enter into their music, and the range is both startling and refreshing. (Ironically, their very first song on their debut album is titled “Gray”.) “Brazen” sounds like it came straight out of the ‘70s, while the lovely and (yes, again) haunting “I Swallowed a Dragonfly” employs the use of two violas and a violin—not to worry, though, we’re not talking about a classical twist here.
Some groups pour their guts out on their debut albums, and have a difficult time trying to refill the tank for their follow-up release. The Heartless Bastards have had no such difficulties. They have taken the next step towards becoming a force to be reckoned with by producing a diverse, intelligent, well-played album like All This Time. One only hopes that they can continue to hold on to their musical dignity as they continue to climb upward. Wennerstrom, dare I say, is one of the most talented, underrated females in rock today. She and her band deserve nothing but plaudits.