Erika Wennerstrom’s voice is Heartless Bastards’ not-so-secret weapon. Idiosyncratic yet soulful and alluring, Wennerstrom’s singing prevents many of the Bastards’ songs from sounding like nineties retreads, even if some of them could be pretty solid nineties retreads. “Gates of Dawn,” for example, certainly holds power from Wennerstrom’s smoky, slightly asexual voice, but it also yields power chords reminiscent of less aggressive radio rock groups from a few decades past.
Heartless Bastards may think of these tracks on their new album, or maybe themselves, as Restless Ones, but the paths both are exploring are, for the most part, worn and well-traveled.
The instrumentation here is typical rock/Americana with subtle ambient effects interlaced for depth. Producer John Congleton’s (St. Vincent, Swans) hand is gentle and loving, accentuating the Bastards’ preexisting sound but encouraging deeper sonic exploration and more layered, textured sounds from the band. The opening track, “Wind Up Bird,” is a prime example of this layering, as the vocals reverberate with a metallic edge and a synthesizer slowly croaks like a tree frog under the expanding guitars.
Many of the other songs don’t offer as much depth aurally, but the physical structures of the songs have enough charming quirks to keep the listener entertained. “Journey” may have a somewhat hackneyed lyrical sentiment but the way the chorus meanders and resolves to not resolve gives the lyrics about the journey being the destination more power. “Into the Light” has enough strut and thrust to propel the listener forward, charming them towards whatever the Bastards are building to.
The final track “Tristessa” may be their most sonically adventurous yet in their career, but ultimately is less restlessly experimental than something on the Animal Collective’s cutting floor.
The “restless” part of this album is actually best exhibited in the latent, almost ineffable energy conveyed in most of these ten tracks. Call this restlessness sheer exuberance more than the ambition to break new ground.
The truth is not every journey is about cutting a strange new path when the existing one works so wonderfully, and though the music Heartless Bastards make may not exactly carve out new frontiers, it still does a great job of making the journey worthwhile.