Heartless Bastards – Stairs and Elevators

I fell in love with Heartless Bastards’ vocalist Erika Wennerstrom’s voice on the Junior Kimbrough tribute (Sunday Nights – The Songs of Junior Kimbrough). I was absolutely floored and immediately went to find out more about this band.

I am pleased to report that Heartless Bastards’ debut album, Stairs and Elevators, sounds nothing like they do on the Kimbrough tribute. But you know what? It’s a million times better. It’s the first album from a new band in a long time that made me stop what I was doing and LISTEN to it, the first album I was blown away over, the first album that I had to take the time and get to know it. I loaded it on my iPod and during the first few days, time and time again, a song from this record would come up in the random shuffle and I’d have to stop what I was doing to check the display on the iPod – “What IS this? Man, it’s good.” Oh. Stairs and Elevators. Should’ve figured.

You’re going to struggle to figure out who Wennerstrom’s voice reminds you of – I know I did. I went through everything I could think of – Ann Wilson? Annie Golden? Lucinda? It was driving me insane until I hit the third track, “New Resolution”. Maybe it was the fact that the intro bass line seems to be a boy howdy tribute borrowed from “Blitzkreig Bop,” but this was the song that the penny fell into place:

She’s a female Joey Ramone.

Honestly, that’s the best description I could give you, and I only want to try so hard to explain it to you because her voice is so unique and tremendous, a soulful, vulnerable warble, a heartfelt croon. And it only gets stronger with the next song, “My Maker.” Realize that I consider this to be like one of the greatest compliments I could give anyone, because it’s not just that she’s channeling Joey (I’m entirely certain it’s not intentional, but I could be wrong) Wennerstrom’s own brand of emotion and grace is permeates the entire record, every corner, every note. It has soul, it has guts, it SAYS something. She’s not whining or pleading, there’s a calm grace and power. This isn’t much of a surprise, coming from someone whose web site statement reads: “My name is Erika Wennerstrom. I’m 27 years old and from Dayton, Ohio. I’ve wanted to be a songwriter and performer since I was born….I just want to keep on moving and do my best not to look back.”

The music. It’s another three piece, but so complete, robust, satisfying. It’s not minimal as much as essential. Erika on guitar, Mike Lampling on Bass and Kevin Vaughn, and it’s bigger than it should be. This rhythm section is both fluid AND solid, I mean, like Entwistle-Moon solid; listen carefully to the drum fills rolling behind “My Maker” if you don’t believe me, and “The Will” and “Pass and Fail” could be Isle of Wight-era Who.

The songs don’t fit into any neat little category, they rock, there’s retro (without being such a carbon copy you wonder why they even bother). I could totally expect to have walked into CBGB in 1985 and seen this band onstage, but they don’t sound dated. In fact, quite the contrary: they sound fresh, original, inspired. You could even dance to them (okay, that drunk couple who think they can dance really well, but can’t, will get up in front of this band and dance to something like “Pass and Fail” for sure).

If for some reason you didn’t plunk down the cash to buy the Kimbrough tribute (and why not? It has two songs by the new Stooges!) “Done Got Old” is on here too, and sounds even better in context with the band’s music book-ending it. It reveals itself to be the standout track that it absolutely is.

“Piano Song” is the only track to have, well, a piano, and this is thrilling. I wish there were more. It’s just Wennerstrom and the keyboard and here you can actually hear every detail of that vodka-soaked, world-wise instrument. “Lazy” wraps it all up, crystallizes it, the voice, the crunge-worthy guitar, the stop-and-start precision of the rhythm section, in my minds’ eye I see the drummer twirling his sticks above his head with a Moon-ish grin on his face. It also wouldn’t have been out of place on Paranoid (and owes perhaps just a little to it).

Stairs and Elevators will be on my top ten of 2005, hands down. Hell, It already is.