I’m sure many people who decide to listen to Arrow are like me, in the sense that they’re listening to this album because they remember The Heartless Bastards from a gig the band played on Friday Night Lights a couple years back. So it’s kinda funny how Arrow- The Heartless Bastards’ first album since that Friday Night Lights gig- starts out sounding very much like the opening of W.G. Snuffy Walden’s twinkly, Texas-twilight theme song from said TV show. The resemblance is striking enough that I’m convinced it’s a meta-wink to those of us just now hopping on the Heartless Bastards bus, like, Yeah, we know why you’re here.
The FNL hat-tip is short though, and The Heartless Bastards soon get down to the business of making sturdy, serviceable Heartland Rock. The melodies on Arrow are fine, but rarely adventurous or surprising. The hooks and riffs are fairly catchy, but few have real fangs. Much of the lyrics are just there, hangin’ out- the kind of lyrics that rhyme “roam” with “home” and “on my own.” The kind of lyrics that “need a little bit o’ whiskey/ and a little bit o’ time/ to ease my troubled mind.” This is rock you could nod and sway and tap your foot to without spilling any of your beer, but I doubt it would inspire you to dance or headbang or even thrust a fist in the air. A couple songs might make you wanna play air guitar. It’s good road trip music for friends who’d rather have tunes to background their warm conversation instead of tunes they can crank up and sing along to.
Which is not to say that singer Erika Wennerstrom doesn’t have a voice worth listening to. In fact, she has the voice of a star-in-the-making. I love how she chews on each syllable like it’s a cheek-wad of tobacco. I also love how she can steep her words in an oaky cocktail of heartache, triumph, and world-weariness. Like in the refrain of “Low Low Low,” where she expresses all those emotions merely by repeating the word “low” in a simple up-and-down five-note melody.
I guess it’s the guitars and the attitude (or lack thereof) that let me down most of all when I listen to Arrow. Now, I’d never argue that a band has to sound exactly like their name suggests. Sometimes, though, the chasm between name and sound is so vast it’s hard not to feel like there’s some serious bait-and-switch going on. (See also: 10,000 Maniacs, Grizzly Bear.) The Heartless Bastards shouldn’t have to sound like actual heartless bastards on every song, or even most of their songs, but it only seems fair that they’d try to sound like heartless bastards- especially ones with ruthless, violent guitars- for at least a significant chunk of each album. Maybe they sound more like heartless bastards on their older albums (again, I’m fairly new to these guys), but on Arrow they only sound like heartless bastards for maybe 8 minutes, tops.
Closing song “Down In The Canyon” makes up about 7 of those minutes. Built on a beastly, cave-drilling riff that I’d dare call “Sabbath-esque,” this track proves that The Heartless Bastards have the power to sound dangerous if they cast their spells right. (The song’s also a redemption of sorts, as it nails the Gothic Western vibe that an earlier track, “The Arrow Killed The Beast,” swings for and foul-tips.) But “Down In The Canyon” is the exception among the attempted rockers here. “Simple Feeling,” for instance, introduces itself in the mask of a furious raver, but whenever the guitars seem like they’re gonna start shredding they pull back faster than you can say “Paul Westerberg.”
The epitome of Arrow‘s shortcomings, however, could be found in a song called “Got To Have Rock And Roll.” The guitars aren’t so much “distorted” as they are “slightly tingly.” The main riff plods far more than it drives. And perhaps, most important of all: you don’t GOT TO Have Rock And Roll; you GOTTA Have Rock And Roll, motherfuckers. It’s that small yet crucial difference that makes Arrow an “all right” instead of a “hell YES.”