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Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2012

Heartless Bastards Retreat to the Mountains


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It's a story everyone's heard: One winter Justin Vernon coops up in his Eau Claire cabin after splitting with his girlfriend and band. What emerges is a desolate yet dazzling record that is so obviously imbued with place and season that For Emma, Forever Ago reminds us of snowy cabins even when played on sweltering August afternoons. Erika Wennerstrom of the Heartless Bastards struggled through similar breakups, but in her case she discarded the emotions from that soured long-term relationship and the band mates she left behind for her latest effort, Arrow, due out Feb. 14.

"It's a record about being content with myself," she says. "After being in a nine-year relationship, there's a time where you might not feel comfortable being alone. Some of the songs reflect that I've really come to appreciate my own company."

She chose a friend's west Texas ranch as her backdrop, placing the focus on rolling mountains rather than encroaching walls. “The vast landscape and the foot of the Davis Mountains were very inspiring,” she says. “There's a lot of space in the songs on the album, and the musicality reflects that landscape.”

It helped that Wennerstrom wasn't as much of a recluse as the Bon Iver frontman, either. She only secluded herself for a couple weeks a few times over the course of two years. The remaining time she traveled across the country, visiting her family and friends, going on tour and mostly attempting to clear her head.

Arrow
only strengthens the perception of Heartless Bastards as the past decade's ideal road-trip band. Sure, the no-frills, bluesy rock of previous records is somewhat subdued, as is Wennerstrom's booming wail, but the laid-back vibe and warm tones that blend with the free-roaming lyrics are more than suitable for a leisurely jaunt down a dusty country road. Opener "Marathon" concludes, "I'm on my way/ I'm on my way/ I'm on my way/ I'm on my way home." It's not delivered as a cry of a disappointing journey but as a joyous and brief sigh for an ongoing voyage.

And Wennerstrom considers Arrow her strongest album to date. The band works well together and her purview is clearer than ever before. She's never been more confident in her work from start to finish. "It's the closest to where I was envisioning the songs going," she says.

Arrow
is certainly the band's most dynamic record. Though producer Jim Eno of Spoon definitely helped cross together various genres, credit is equally due to Wennerstrom's writing style. She likes imagining a favorite artist singing the words she's written and then imitating what she imagines she's hearing. When it comes time to lay down the tracks in the studio, she culls examples from the artist's discography to build the perfect sound around her voice.

"On the song 'Only for You,' I was thinking about Curtis Mayfield and imagined myself singing like him," she says. "We went with a '70s R&B soul vibe on that one. On 'Got to Have Rock and Roll,' I was thinking of Marc Bolan and T. Rex. On 'Parted Ways,' I was inspired by Thin Lizzy's cover of the old traditional song 'Whiskey in the Jar.'”

Wennerstrom doesn't fear being upfront about her forebears' pronounced fingerprints because even though her work syncs to diverging musical styles, she always leaves her mark.

"I honestly think I try to sound like so many different people that I end up sounding like myself,” she says.

Heartless Bastards headline Turner Hall Ballroom with openers Hacienda on Thursday, Feb. 9, at 7:30 p.m. The band also has an in-store performance at The Exclusive Company at 3:30 p.m. that day.
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