Heartless Bastards — A Beautiful Life
Whenever someone hems and haws at me about going to see an opening band, I tell them about Heartless Bastards. Having never heard of them before seeing them open for Lucinda Williams in Asheville way back in ‘07, I, along with a bunch of my fellow concert-goers, was instantly hooked by the three-piece fronted by a tiny woman with a big, soulful voice. That woman, Erika Wennerstrom, has kept making excellent music, both with her band and on 2018’s standout solo album, 2018’s Sweet Unknown. Now, Heartless Bastards is back, in their latest incarnation, with a brand-new record. A Beautiful Life draws on Wennerstrom’s favorite themes of self-acceptance and rejection of materialism while further expanding the band’s sonic palette.
The band’s sixth album begins with “Revolution,” the 2020 single that was the first new music we’d heard from the band in nearly a half-decade. The slow burn of a tune recalls a time before gaslighting became a hobby – “Have you forgotten when/There was a time when false information wasn’t so rampant in the sphere.” Along with the song’s abrupt tempo change, Wennerstrom pivots her message from wistful to active, reminding us that we can make a change in our worldview – “The revolution is in your mind.”
In its early days, Heartless Bastards was a guitar/bass/drums three-piece, but over the years, Wennerstrom has added depth and texture (and members) to her band. 2009’s “The Mountain” featured some excellent steel guitar which made the song pop, and the experimentation has continued since then. Strings and woodwinds appear on several tracks, “Went Around the World” features programmed beats, and the trance-y “The River” features a swirl of violin (from Andrew Bird) and Persian setar (Fared Shafinury) which bolsters Wennerstron’s mantra-like praise of the cleansing power of water. The next tune, “Photograph,” kicks off with a country-ish guitar riff before delving into cosmic jam territory. Like I said, this album will take you down a number of different sonic highways.
While trying new things, A Beautiful Life also contains some of Heartless Bastards’ most outright gorgeous music. “Dust” is a pretty mix of acoustic, clean electric and Wennerstorm’s mellotron. “When I Was Younger” features a combo of acoustic, percussion and strings that would fit right into a Jimmy Webb track. And “The Thinker,” both musically and thematically, loops back to the start of the record. Over layers of keys and guitars, Wennerstrom finds herself back inside her own head while tracing her path over the past 15 years of making music – “I got lost inside an hourglass and had to ask what I’m even doing anymore.” Fittingly, she reaches an apex of self-acceptance – “The only thing I want to rule is myself” – then wraps with nothing more musically complex than Wennerstrom’s voice and acoustic guitar. Whether it’s a big, lush sound or something barely above a whisper, Wennerstrom knows where the good stuff lies.
Song I Can’t Wait to Hear Live: “Dust” – it’s quieter, which brings out the best in Wennerstrom’s already-amazing voice.
A Beautiful Life was produced by Kevin Ratterman and Erika Wennerstrom, engineered and mixed by Ratterman and mastered by Emily Lazar. All songs were written by Wennerstrom. Additional musicians on the album include Ratterman (percussion, beats), Gregory Clifford (drums), Jesse Ebaugh (bass), Lauren Gurgiolo (guitar), Jesse Chandler (keys), Omar Velasco (guitar), Bo Koster (keys), Chris Hausler (percussion), David Pulkingham (guitar), Danny Reisch (percussion), Eric Gorfain (violin), Daphne Chen (violin), Leah Katz (viola), Richard Doss (cello), Andrew Bird (violin), Fared Shafinury (Persian setar), Jesse Chandler (flute, clarinet) and Beth Harris (harmony vocals).
Go here to order A Beautiful Life (out September 10): https://sweetunknownrecords.com/
Check out tour dates here: https://www.theheartlessbastards.com/tour