Heartless Bastards, All This Time

J. Edward Keyes

By J. Edward Keyes

on 04.22.11 in Reviews

Cincinnati trio discovers the power of turning down

Erika Wennerstrom lead off the Heartless Bastards 'debut by howling "I'm gonna take everything! Everything!" — and the desperation and agony in her ragged alto made that sentiment easy to believe. While other bands served up plastic-scuzz new-garage templates, the Bastards had a tangible current of urgency that made their songs feel both more dire and more dangerous, not just Nuggets-by-numbers. As good as that record was, though, it spent far too much time running in the red — all that thrash and howl can wear a person out, and too much bludgeoning can desensitize instead of inspire.

Which is why All This Time is stronger and more engaging: the Bastards have tightened and tied down all that rage; instead of scraping and thrashing, the songs have an insistent slow burn. (What was that old saw about implication over explication?) There's more danger in the murky sway of "Valley of Debris" than there was in any of the debut's raw vitriol. Rather than attacking outright, the songs tug and surge, creating a consistent feeling of unease.

Wennerstrom's still got a violent voice, but she exploits its crags and cracks more, teasing out verses instead of simply bellowing. Witness how she ratchets up the energy syllable-by-syllable in the line "I've got no mo-ti-va-TION" in "Blue Day," or how she skips across the lyric in the title track. She spends most of the record singing against the current: guitars wax and wane like turbulent tides, and Wennerstrom plays the part of the doomed human pushing in the other direction. "I swallowed a dragonfly in hopes that it would help me fly," she sings from behind a haze of guitars in the mantra-like "I Swallowed a Dragonfly." Her moment in the air was short-lived, but All This Time proves the Bastards are even more compelling wounded and grounded than they are when they're snarling and on the attack.