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Heartless Bastards - Stairs and Elevators

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Artist: Heartless Bastards

Album: Stairs and Elevators

Label: Fat Possum

Review date: Feb. 2, 2005

For most of its lifespan the Fat Possum label has sustained itself on a finite food source. The supply of aboriginal hill country bluesmen is at an all-time ebb and shows no signs of rebounding. Even de facto custodians to the cause like the motorcycle-helmeted lo-fi lunatic Bob Logg can’t shoulder the burden of a slowly sinking ship that relies on a superannuated talent pool to stay afloat. Such sobering realities mandated a revamping of the label’s erstwhile and perpetually money-sieving business plan. To coin a catchphrase, they swung open the shed doors to Rock, courting bands like the Thee Shams and loners like Paul Westerberg (under the dubious alias Grandpaboy) to replenish the depleted coffers. So far it seems to be a strategy successful in staving the downward slide toward insolvency.

The Heartless Bastards are the latest to sign on the line. Fronted by twentysomething Buckeye State native Erika Wennerstrom on guitars, vocals and the occasional ivories they’re a power trio with prickly roots planted in garage rock and tendrils dipped in strains of early punk (think Stooges and Blue Cheer) and blues to further sweeten the nectar. Mike Lamping, who works for his family-run janitorial supply company, and Kevin Vaughn, who delivers pizza, complete the points of the triangle on bass and drums, respectively. The irony inherent in their obdurate nom de marquee suggests a strong adherence to the spirit of the sobriquet, if not the letter.

Musically, all sorts of influences shake out in their shared ecumenical sound on Stairs and Elevators. Given Wennerstrom’s gender and basic demeanor at the mic, PJ Harvey is most readily reducible referent, but I also hear slivers of Patti Smith, Chrissie Hynde and even Gwen Stefani (!) on tracks like the dirty stomp of “Swamp Song” where she ties off each gritty verse with a free-hanging sing-song “naturally.” Mid-tune they ramp up the tempo conjuring shades of The White Stripes over trip-hammer drums and wide flanging guitar. The stand out track is “The Will Song,” a loping dirge-style anthem banked on droning juiced-up guitar and a steady driving backbeat. It unfolds with an organic logic before upending exquisitely in the simple conceit of an accelerated steamroller close.

The only real miscue is the trio’s ill-suited cover of Junior Kimbrough’s “Done Got Old,” likely a brainchild of their label bosses (it also slots on a recent tribute album to the former Fat Possum kingpin). Tweaking the central lyric slightly to read “I feel old,” Wennerstrom’s reading removes the woebegone gravitas of the composer’s absolute advanced-years entropy. Lamping and Vaughn strike predictably cocky stances, pummeling hard on their respective implements, and end up missing the diminished-capacity point of the tune completely. Still, the remainder of the record rocks under an uncompromising intensity and refreshing absence of self-importance. With a healthy helping of luck and the ardor of an attentive alternative press these three will hopefully follow in their label’s reversal-of-fortune footsteps and soon be wading deep in a river of well-earned greenbacks.

By Derek Taylor

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