By David M. Goldstein | 13 March 2012
The Heartless Bastards are a totally competent band. Competent like Tom Petty’s competent. Which may initially smack of some back-handed complimenting where vocalist and guitarist Erika Wennerstrom is concerned, but it’s actually one of her band’s most notable strengths. In other words: the Heartless Bastards don’t forge any new ground, nor do they try to; Wennerstrom just always manages to bang out extremely well-written classic rock songs with enough stylistic variation to sustain a full length LP—an LP that will inevitably take a few listens to sink in. One gets the feeling she could probably do this every two to three years until she drops. Like Tom Petty could.
Arrow, the band’s fourth album, doesn’t differ significantly from their prior efforts, though the fiddle and pedal steel flourishes of 2009’s rootsy The Mountain have been largely excised in favor of more hot shit guitar soloing care of new recruit Mark Nathan. Spoon’s Jim Eno is in the producer’s chair, and he wisely keeps the aesthetic simple, emphasizing the rhythm section but otherwise leaving well enough alone. Indeed, most of Arrow sounds recorded live to the floor with overdubs correctly kept at a bare minimum (Arrow is the antithesis of the new Springsteen, in other words).
The songs fit snugly into stylistic patterns familiar to followers of AOR radio. “Skin & Bone” is the rueful acoustic song about Wennerstrom and her childhood memories; “Simple Feeling” the Who pastiche with guitar windmills and raucous Moon-style drum fills; “Down in the Canyon” the seven-minute, Sabbath-meets-Crazy-Horse jam to close out the record on a furious note. But while the tropes may seem lazy at first, the band in practice is mighty: Wennerstrom’s earthy bellow remains a powerful instrument, and she’s a rock solid songwriter unafraid to indulge in a little cliché to get her points across, appropriate for the classic rock genre in which she peddles. She’s surely not the first singer to wish for “A little bit of whiskey / And a little bit of time / To ease [her] troubled mind,” like she does on the ’69 Stones shuffle of “Parted Ways,” but her desire is palpable, as is the round robin of Marty McFly guitar solos at the end of the self-explanatory “Got to Have Rock and Roll.” The Bastards are actually at their weakest when Wennerstrom strains too hard for profundity, like on the overlong Spaghetti Western melodrama of “The Arrow Killed the Beast,” maybe the only song on here that could be considered overproduced.
Arrow‘s finest song, and one of the best Heartless Bastards songs to date, is “Late in the Night.” In addition to its prime Skynard-ian lust, appealingly chunky, it’s also the best example of how Erika Wennerstrom just gets it the fuck done. No pretense, just a perfectly executed rock song designed to enliven any barroom jukebox one can imagine—a workmanlike anthem from the most workmanlike of recent rock bands. Competence, after all, is a virtue.