Released: June 2015
Grammy-winning producer John Congleton, who has worked with such reputable alternative names as St. Vincent, Swans and Angel Olsen, has most recently turned to overseeing the continued success of Heartless Bastards, a band that after finding favour with none other than The Black Keys has gone from strength to strength over the past ten years. It’s arguably one of his most challenging projects, as he attempts to give to this American alt-country outfit the kind of oddball edge that has made his previous collaborators so successful.
Lead singer Erika Wennerstrom is well and truly the star of the show as this ten track LP showcases some fine vocal performances over admittedly safe and sometimes clichéd instrumentation. Her rowdy and raucous vocal style, coupled with the ability to soften her tones when a slow ballad demands it, adds real character to an album that is essentially country rock with fancy production. Restless Ones is a strong record, but one that often strays into well-trodden territory.
They might have been known for the garage rock sound associated with Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney prior to this album but make no mistake: Restless Ones is far from El Camino or anything The White Stripes have ever written. It certainly displays a characteristically American sensibility, with Eastern Wind and Gates of Dawn creating an atmosphere that places the listener in the Wild West. The former could be a Rolling Stones track if it wasn’t for Wennerstrom, who with her unmistakable accent and some great harmonies places us distinctly in an American desert, whilst in the latter this sound is developed into a more sophisticated power ballad, the likes of which can be heard on recent records by Red Hot Chilli Peppers and Pearl Jam.
As can be expected from Congleton, the production on this record is sublime. Often very bland verses are rescued by some inspired organ sound or distortion of the original track, tiny editions that keep listeners interested as songs such as Pocket Full of Thirst and Wind Up Bird plod along with too much predictability. Sometimes there is little that can be done, though, and many tracks, The Fool, Journey, Hi-Line, blur into an obscure mess of open chords and root notes.
Fortunately Heartless Bastards have a superb singer at their disposal in the form of Wennerstrom, who carries many tracks with her unique and empowering vocal style. Heartless? She is anything but; every vocal performance is filled with heart and soul, and the already beautifully written melodies that characterise most of the record are enhanced by her emphatic and audacious vocal skill. ‘Won’t take shit from anyone’ she yells on Black Cloud – with this amount of confidence and bravado one suspects she’s being deadly serious.
Perhaps a little safe at times, and very limiting to a group of musicians that have proven their instrumental prowess on previous records, Restless Ones is far from a bold step forward. Nonetheless it boasts some stunning vocal performances from its immensely talented lead singer and has the quirky alternative style needed to just about set it apart from other modern alt-country albums. It’s hardly album of the year, but well worth a listen.