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Heartless Bastards - All This Time

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Artist: Heartless Bastards

Album: All This Time

Label: Fat Possum

Review date: Aug. 6, 2006

Embracing a touring schedule that would prompt major-label bands to balk in terror, The Heartless Bastards have gradually built buzz the old-fashioned way: by taking their sounds directly to the people via stages small and smaller. They were one of my favorite discoveries of 2004 and my anticipation for this sophomore effort gained fervency through a concert caught at a Minneapolis club in March. The new songs auditioned in the set sounded excellent, with guitarist/vocalist Erika Wennerstrom expanding her already crunching and lacerating guitar style with an additional clutch of pedal effects.

The Bastards are a band born of the garage and modest beginnings. Aspirations of eminence do not preclude an enduring respect for their label’s maverick blues history. Their debut Stairs and Elevators borrowed from those rugged traditions and tailored them to an original and varied songbook of hard-rocking, rhythm-guided tunes rendered solely by guitar, bass, drums and the occasional errant piano. Therein resides my chief, if ultimately minor, reservation with All This Time. While lyrically diverse, most of the tracks feel like subtle variations on the same song structure.

“Into the Open” builds from a repeating minimalist piano figure, kicking in and soaring upward via flanging guitars and syncopated drums. It’s a strong opener. “Searching for the Ghost” is similarly bare bones in design and deployment. Multi-tracked vocals and more searing jet engine fretwork converge over a lockstep cadence. “Finding Solutions” features dramatic vocals and droning guitars atop a tribal drum rhythm that gains speed and grandeur to a churning Zeppelin-like apex, the perfect impetus for hoisting that handy Zippo aloft in communion with omnipotent rock deities. Inexplicably, the song fades. “Brazen” is sped up, but operates off the same basic compositional principles of tension and release. Wennerstrom coats her riffs with a smoldering varnish of distortion, building to a layered cathartic climax that once again silences in mid-stride. The problem of sometimes-quixotic studio production also mars other aspects of the album. Wennerstrom’s powerful projective vocals are repeatedly processed and tampered with, unnecessarily diluting the immediacy of her delivery. Her guitar lines are similarly filtered in places, their signature serrated edges largely intact, but sometimes stacked to the point of diffusiveness.

“I Swallowed a Dragonfly” echoes the album’s pastoral cover imagery. It’s an anthemic march dipped in grinding feedback, overdubbed strings and stomping drums that swells to a transcendent zenith and strummed acoustic coda. The next couple of tracks capitalize on sea shanty-like simplicity with superior results. On “Valley of Debris,” the guitars and bass boast even more fuzz tone bite, exposing a passionate insistence missing from some of the earlier cuts. Wennerstrom shouts the rhythmic verses, a coiled pile of amplified guitar noise hissing beneath her words. The shift to monolithic metal riffage in the song’s final minute ramps the ardency even higher. “No Pointing Arrows” is another potent, if fleeting, entry with the amps cranked and Wennerstrom modulating her voice with a passionate precision that brings to mind vintage Liz Phair. Again, the end comes abruptly and premature. “Came a Long Way,” a somber power ballad, saves the best and most ambitious guitar solo for last in a burning exposition that moves from rippling reverb to caustic distortion and back. Despite my cosmetic misgivings, there’s a beguiling earnestness in abundance that gradually erodes doubt. Chances are strong that All This Time will only enhance the Bastards’ growing cachet.

By Derek Taylor

Other Reviews of Heartless Bastards

Stairs and Elevators

The Mountain

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