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Monday, September 15, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 47.0° F  Fair
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Heartless Bastards make room for reflection on their new album Arrow
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Heartless Bastards aren't heartless at all.
Heartless Bastards aren't heartless at all.

Erika Wennerstrom tries to have it many ways at once in her bluesy rock band Heartless Bastards. Her baritone howl is tough enough to preside over surly guitars and a muscular rhythm section but leaves room for vulnerability as well. Wennerstrom even tried full-on tenderness for much of 2009's The Mountain, favoring slow rhythms that sway instead of the punch of the band's 2005 debut, Stairs and Elevators. On this year's Arrow, her conflicting tendencies begin to reconcile within individual songs. Rather than separating them into rockers and softies, the band strikes a balance with the following tracks.

'Only for You'

On top of being a T. Rex-channeling rocker and contemplative folksinger, Wennerstrom occasionally strives to be a soul singer. On "Only for You," the band makes the sultry advances of a classic Al Green track. Wennerstrom even tests out a falsetto croon over the light-footed but funky drums. Guitarist Mark Nathan plays his sparse, low-end lead with longing and snap, making it clear that the song's a come-on.

'Skin and Bone'

As the track "Low Low Low" demonstrates, Wennerstrom's vocal melodies can drag out and lose form when the tempo is slow and the mood ponderous. But a beat with some swing in it can restore her voice's sharpness without killing her pensive state. On "Skin and Bone," she mourns the decay of a small town that thrived when she was younger: "The rain came down all around/Washed away the industry, washed it to the sea."

The lyrics say this is a recession-era lament, but the bright melody says Wennerstrom's pulling out of the town with fond memories.

'Parted Ways'

On "Parted Ways," Wennerstrom takes time to be evocative but makes clear she's moving on. She asks for "wide-open space," and drummer Dave Colvin provides it, playing a swift beat with a light touch. Wennerstrom and Nathan find a Neil Young and Crazy Horse-like partnership between clean, jangly guitars and barbed, fuzzy ones. What they've created isn't too wide-open, just enough to let the band rock and contemplate simultaneously.

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