As static markers in time, records are only imperfect measures of a band’s current constitution. Case in point, the Heartless Bastards, whose evolving history has already outdistanced the signpost of their third album, The Mountain. Head Bastard Erika Wennerstrom took some radical cosmetic steps during its 2007 recording sessions that ultimately don’t yield the sorts of dividends they promise. Gone are her road dog colleagues, Mark Lampling and Kevin Vaughn. The current replacements, Dave Colvin and Jesse Ebaugh, actually predate their predecessors, having backed Wennerstrom on her initial demo for Fat Possum – but neither plays on the new record either. On board instead is a small cadre of studio guests, among them Will Rhodes and Mark Nathan, who further beef up the guitar quotient in conjunction with Wennerstrom’s reliably rocking fretwork. Production is more prevalent as well, with panning effects and overdubs regularly augmenting the musicians, if sometimes numbing the bite that was so appealingly a part of their previous two platters.
Rather than erupting with new insights, The Mountain sags audibly beneath the weight of its new strata. The collage of the jacket cover works as a handy distillation of the problem, its jigsaw imagery mirroring the myriad of influences and ingredients vying to be heard. Wennerstrom ropes them in through her songcraft, starting with soaring ribbons of pedal steel on the title track and moving into the skeletal acoustic rock of “Could be So Happy,” her keening voice cloned through overdubbing. “Out to Sea” sounds a familiar metaphor for ennui through layers of spiky guitar effects with a metronomic backbeat, while “Nothing Seems the Same” retools the shimmer-saturated riff and splashing cymbals beat of “Blue Day” from their second record, All This Time, and comes up with a different spin, slightly under par. These rock numbers contrast sharply with the bluegrass instrumentation of “So Quiet” and “Had to Go,” the first unfurling as a pretty prairie lullaby while the second offers another meditation on emotional retreat, stretching to a healthy seven-plus minutes and folding in a passionate fiddle solo to boot. The album’s last two cuts bounce back into crunchy chordal rock territory making the preceding detours feel even more incongruous by comparison.
Considered individually, there’s nothing here to rival the magnitude of past song peaks like “The Will Song” or “Valley of Debris.” The silver lining is that the Bastards are still a killer live band, best seen and experienced in the bar-scale venues that continue to serve as way stations on their relentless tour schedule. Catch them in that context and the missteps and missed opportunities of The Mountain become easy to forgive and forget.