Heartless Bastards, 'The Mountain' (Fat Possum)

8
The Mountain
Critical Mass
Label: Fat Possum

by Amanda Petrusich

Erika Wennerstrom has a voice -- deep, throaty, loose -- that could make even the most uninhibited vocalist feel uptight and contained by comparison: Each note she sings feels deeply animated, as if it's got its own heartbeat and fully formed pair of fists.As frontwoman for Heartless Bastards, her Ohio-born garage-rock outfit, which owes as much to Muddy Waters as to the Kinks, the diminutive Wennerstrom wails, seethes, and wisecracks: "I could be so sweet if I just quit being sour," she deadpans on "Be So Happy."

The Mountain, the band's third LP, necessitated a few shifts in position and personnel -- Wennerstrom relocated to Austin, Texas, pulled in a fresh rhythm section (composed of former collaborators Dave Colvin and Jesse Ebaugh), and signed up Spoon producer Mike McCarthy. The result, which is gentler and more eclectic than the Bastards' earlier releases, is also Wennerstrom's most glorious, a collection of salty, rousing rock'n'roll that'll leave you aching for a roadhouse, a sticky bar stool, and a chipped glass of bourbon.

The epic, string-riddled "Had to Go" feels ancient and foreboding, a cautionary tale in the grand tradition of Lead Belly's gut-stabbing "Where Did You Sleep Last Night?" -- banjo strums never felt so ominous. "I packed my bags and I left my home / And now everything's changing, I'm feeling alone," Wennerstrom belts. Her desperation is our gain.

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