Erika Wennerstrom is a genuine force of nature. If you’re hearing her voice for the first time, you quickly realize that it qualifies as a revelation. If you’ve heard her before, you’ve been waiting for an encore. That encore has arrived in the form of the third Heartless Bastards album, The Mountain (Fat Possum Records).
These aren’t your momma’s Heartless Bastards. Things have changed. First, Wennerstrom split up with her boyfriend of 11 years, Mike Lamping, who played bass in the band, and was very much present on its first two albums. “It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever dealt with,” she told the New York Times. Next she headed to Austin for a fresh start, where she holed up in an apartment for six months until she had written the 11 songs that make up The Mountain. Every song, every syllable on the album is haunted by the ghost of love lost:
Lately I’m feeling so alone
I packed up my bags and I left my home
And now everything’s changed and I’m feeling alone
I got no one to blame cause I had to go
As if all of that wasn’t enough, Wennerstrom and producer Mike McCarthy (Spoon, Trail of Dead, Patty Griffin) have expanded the band’s sonic palette beyond bass, drums, and Wennerstrom’s electric guitar bashing. Crucial new elements include violin, banjo, and pedal steel. If you’re thinking this is a turn toward country music, forget it, unless you consider a certain Appalachian longing to be a part of the genre. Heartless Bastards remain a powerful indie-rock band at their core. If you’re curious as to what that means these days, listen to “Witchypoo.”
When you have no interest in showbiz marketing, you get by on talent, and determination. The first two Heartless Bastards albums sold less than 30,000 copies combined. It will be a surprise if this one does any better, which is a shame, because this is music that deserves the support of a wider audience. Still, despite her trials, Wennerstrom continues moving inexorably forward, an effort she describes on “Hold Your Head High.”
I’m coming back I’m coming back again
I had lost everything and then I got it back again
I dug myself so deep, so deep into a hole
That getting out was so far beyond my control
When the album was finished, and it was time to put together a new band, Wennerstrom, who could have had her pick of great musicians, enlisted drummer Dave Colvin, and bass player Jesse Ebaugh. There was nothing new about either of the two fellow Dayton natives. In fact, they had played on the demo that got Heartless Bastards their deal with Fat Possum. It was important to her to have band mates who could share a van as well as the stage. And so, everything old is new again.
Patti Smith, PJ Harvey, Lucinda Williams … those are all names that your mind will conjure up when you listen to Wennerstrom. Don’t bother with comparisons. The only thing they all have in common is commitment, which is what makes them icons in the first place. Wennerstrom is rapidly approaching the point when she will join that august company.