J. Paul Zoccali
As satisfying and artistically impressive as the Heartless Bastards' first three LPs are, there was always something not quite right with the final product. A dense cloud of inspired lyrical ideas swirling around lead-singer/writer Erika Wennerstrom seemed to dissipate in the wind of hit-or-miss execution. Growling guitars and rumbling drums remained cramped in a recording style that offered no room to breath. Final mixes varied too much from song to song within the same album.
Many, if not all, of those issues have been rectified on the band's latest gem, Arrow, their first effort with Partisan Records. From the explosive conclusion of the set's opening benediction, "Marathon," to the 70s-metal closer, "Down in the Canyon," the garage-rockers' eclectic-Americana style of punk rock alternately flies with the Eagles and explodes like an ill-fated Zeppelin on a dark Sabbath. (Did I hear a theremin in "Simple Feeling?") A refreshingly "loosened" recording and mastering style that permits evidence the band is indeed being recorded in a room in a studio as apposed to through a vacuum holds true throughout the set. That just-right tweak in warmth and sharpness of sound combines with a coalescing song-crafting dynamic to push the Austin-via-Cinci quartet's art closer to critical mass than ever before without sacrificing their soon-to-be-trademark guttural punch.
Shaking off the Texas mud adds to Wennerstrom's ethereal guided tours of vast prairie in "Skin and Bone" and "The Arrow Killed the Beast," as well as gnarly-rock sledgehammers, "Gotta Have Rock and Roll" and "Late in the Night." Instrumental parts and arrangements with better focus and less fluff show a group that's truly found themselves. That said, while this album marks her biggest step yet, Ms. Wennerstrom still hasn't hit her stride as a lyricist. I greatly appreciate the grammatical correctness, but on occasion she seems too dedicated to complete sentences. Maybe she should take a page from the band's new producer, Jim Eno's notes, and loosen up a bit and make full use of the poetic license she's got coming to her. Still, if a better Indie-Rock album comes out this year, someone please bring it to my attention.
4.5 stars out of 5