|Dexter Hangs Out with Heartless Bastards|
more current work. This is mainly because I thought their sound was completely derivative of southern ‘70s rock like Little Feat or Lynrd Skynrd. A dozen years ago, Afghan Whigs and their side project Twilight Singers were both garnering national attention, though they haven’t entered the public consciousness.
Heartless Bastards started out in Cincinnati/Dayton nine years ago and have moved on to Austin, which is a much higher profile music scene. I’d only heard their first album Stairs and Elevators when it first came out and it was good, but it felt like loud garage rock and was a little generic. A couple of weeks ago, I received an email that they were going to play a live three-song set for WNKU radio. I was fortunate enough to go and it felt like a cross between a coffee house and Austin City Limits.
The first song went really well, but the second was off in the mix. A couple of us in the audience were looking at each other with an expression of “What? Can you hear Erika or not?” Lead singer Erik Wennerstrom asked the engineer to re-set her levels, but he was insistent they were fine. She was right and he was wrong. It is a rule of live pop/rock music that engineers are invariably male and they set levels with their balls instead of their ears. I think he adjusted slightly and the band worked around the problem in the third song, which went well.
After hearing them live, I wanted to get Arrow, their latest. For one thing, they’ve developed a specific point of view and it may have happened because of changes in band members. Wennerstrom jokingly said that “Got To Have Rock And Roll” was their homage to Marc Bolan and T. Rex of the ‘70s since it shares a close bass line with “Bang a Gong.” However, this album is anything but derivative. It comes from a place of legend and a tradition that reaches back to the 1930s when regional music started gaining a national audience through the Carter Family and carried on through Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited, Springsteen’s Darkness on the Edge of Town, U2’s The Joshua Tree, and Bonnie Raitt’s Luck of the Draw.
Wennerstrom has a dark alto voice that suggests Grace Slick around the time of Surrealistic Pillow, but she’s also a guitarist who’s vitally connected to the music like Chrissie Hynde, but without the swagger. Jesse Ebaugh on bass and Dave Colvin on drums and percussion are the best rhythm section playing in an American rock vein right now. There are gems on this set, but “The Arrow Killed The Beast” deserves to be a classic since it recalls the dark myth that is Americana.