Stairs & Elevators
I tend to follow my chosen paths in music to to the point of mandatory return. It follows the same pathetic models most addictions do: it starts out fun and kicky, and then takes over my focus, alienating me from others, propelling me down the tunnel of my own vision only to find there is a brick wall in the darkness. I remember a year long free jazz jag that did a better job keeping people out of my car than its usual toxic level of filth and my lousy driving. (Trust me, nothing makes a worse first impression on a date than popping in a particularly obtuse Cecil Taylor tape. "And he plays like this for 45 minutes straight!" I excitedly exclaimed, as I backed put of her driveway into her mailbox. But that's another story.) I feared recently that I would hit the avant-folk rock bottom with all this beautiful woolly music I've been listening to and end up staggering out of an alley, trying to turn my appalled former friends onto this Cd-R of a mumbling Norwegian tree house dweller slapping an acoustic guitar with a fish I just got in the mail.
The first step in recovery is admitting you have a problem, and the second is latching onto something that will pull you in the right direction, and my musicological tugboat this time is the impassioned rock of the Heartless Bastards. Power chords, four-on-the-flour drums and singer Erika Wennerstrom's clarion rawk-holler burst out of the gate proclaiming "I'm gonna take everything, everything!" on Stairs & Elevators' opening track "Gray." Please do, Heartless Bastards, because you do such wonderful things with it. The band is spot on great rock-n-roll, reminding me of undersung working class heroes like The Smithereens and proto-punkers The Nerves and countless others that grind out that sound, but Erika's cutting voice is definitely the star of this show. She eschews any of the cliche's of female lead singerdom of being either spooky or coquettish and opts instead to blare and croon out like a more erudite Robert Plant and a more melodious Jack White.
Her rapid delivery on "New Resolution" is the winning vocal performance for me, where she varies between between sing-song confession to leading the cavalry in the chorus. Other straight-up rock-out highlights are "My Maker" and "Autonomy," both songs I wish I would hear blaring out of my radio again. Same for the up-grind blues moan "Done Feel Old" which may be the best song on the album. The stylistic variant in this collection is the appropriately titled "Piano Song" which bears not a little resemblance to "Imagine" until Erika delivers a soliloquy of self-determination through failed love to make this one of the more inspiring ballads of late.
I don't mean to portray Heartless Bastards as some anonymous bar-band whose merit is only in context to a good night out on the tiles. Much to the contrary, Stairs & Elevators is one of those records that hits you with the hammer, reminding you to not lose your faith in rock-n-roll, that there is still plenty of gold to mine out of those hills. Crank it up and get digging.
Alex V. Cook listens to everything and writes about most of it. His latest book, the snappily titled Louisiana Saturday Night: Looking for a Good Time in South Louisiana's Juke Joints, Honky-Tonks, and Dance Halls is an odyssey from the backwoods bars and small-town dives to the swampside dance halls and converted clapboard barns of a Louisiana Saturday Night. Don't leave Heathrow without it. His first book Darkness Racket and Twang is available from SideCartel. The full effect can be had at alex v cook.com
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