For those of you who have followed the travails of the little label that almost could—Fat Possum Records—the ideal of grabbing unknown bluesmen from the North Mississippi Hill Country and attempting to give them worldwide props is winding down to a close. The most notable reason is that many of said blues artists are either dead or retired, due to health problems. (This is what happens when the folks lay their first record down after 60 years of hard livin’.) And even though some of the old guard remain (Robert Belfour, Paul “Wine” Jones, and 80-year-old T-Model Ford), the folks at the label had to expand to remain afloat. Hell, for one album, soul legend Solomon Burke put his comeback imprint on the Fat Possum label, and earned a Grammy for Don’t Give Up on Me.
But now, it seems that the label is kinda working its way down the garage rock road. Arguments can be made that the Black Keys can be found on that path (and they can also be classified as a rock band that blueses out, or a blues band that rocks out), but since they’re arguably under the blues umbrella, that’s a stretch. More likely are a pair of bands the label has found over the last year: Thee Shams, and now, Heartless Bastards. Both of them are getting the Fat Possum push (both have songs on the Junior Kimbrough tribute album), and while Thee Shams’ album didn’t generate much of an advance buzz in the industry, it’s a different story for Heartless Bastards.
Erika Wennerstrom, the guitarist, vocalist, lyricist and focal point of Heartless Bastards went from Dayton to Cincinnati, Ohio, met bassist Mike Lamping, and shortly thereafter hooked up with drummer Kevin Vaughn. After playing the clubs and getting good word-of-mouth, they were signed by the Oxford folks. And there are a lot of things to like about their Fat Possum debut, Stairs and Elevators.
From the opening notes of “Gray”, you can feel the power and intensity coming out of your speakers/headphones/ear buds. “Gray” is probably one of the best songs on the album—it carries a lot of punch, a great melody, and tight chops. In fact, for a garage band, the trio is pretty tight throughout the dozen songs. But Wennerstrom’s biggest strength lies in her lyrics (“I got these words on the tip of my tongue, make it feel so numb, so I march my feet to a different drum…”).
The lyrics and the passion in which they’re delivered are what separate Heartless Bastards from the pack. “Onions” is an odd title for a song (a dialogue between Shrek and Donkey comes to mind), but it’s a song about finding one’s independence. “New Resolution” sounds like Chrissie Hynde at the beach. In fact, most of the album sounds like early Pretenders, minus an actual lead guitarist. “My Maker” is short and snarly, and “Runnin’” breaks out of the prototype of the rest of the album. It concentrates on being deliberately slower, tempo-wise, works two melodic chords throughout, and goes just past the five-minute mark. It’s one of the most arresting songs on the album, because it’s successful being different.
Past “Runnin’”, the rest of the album goes a tad uneven. “Autonomy” gets back to the harder edge of the earlier songs; its melody is more memorable than “Pass and Fail”, the song that follows. “The Will Song” is not memorable, while “Swamp Song” cops the opening riff from Everclear’s “Santa Monica”. “Done Got Old” is the one cover on the album, the Junior Kimbrough song that also appears on the Fat Possum Collection Sunday Nights: the Songs of Junior Kimbrough. It has meat and bite, though the interpretation was best done by Buddy Guy on Sweet Tea. Wennerstrom, who learned to play the piano at an early age, lightens the music up a bit on the aptly named “Piano Song”, and the album closes with the decent “Lazy”.
Admittedly, it took a few listens to warm up to Stairs and Elevators. Outside of the Kimbrough cover, the only striking songs on first listen were “Gray” and “Runnin’”. But more listens uncovered more lyrical depth and the guts of this band to try different things (musically speaking) on the same CD—a debut at that. Not everything was a home run, but there are very few outs recorded. Time and patience are what’s required to enjoy the debut from the Heartless Bastards. Judging from the sound of the CD, though, they appear to blow the doors off of things in a live setting. Listening to Stairs and Elevators is like tasting a fine scotch: it improves with age. Methinks the band itself will be the same way.