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Heartless Bastards' Big-Hearted Rock

A voice like Erika Wennerstrom's comes around once in a generation or so, soulful, tough and flecked with blues. The lead singer for Cincinnati's Heartless Bastards has the hard-edged vulnerability of classic female vocalists from Janis Joplin and Grace Slick right down to the late Mia Zapata. Only after a few spins of her band's Stairs and Elevators (Fat Possum) do you realize exactly what is so rock about her singing — she plays her voice like she plays the guitar, in a frantic eighth-note rhythm that nails the twos and fours to the wall. It's an old-style cadence, half strut, half wail, and 100% blues-rock anthem. She is backed by a tight but minimal combination of bass and drums, a band that has dropped a guitar since the Heartless Bastards' debut self-released EP, but one that gets her stripped-down melodies across with sludgy raw power.

Wennerstrom, interviewed by phone recently, says that she has been singing most of her life, but found her current style relatively late in the process. "I always wanted to sing, but honestly, I was pretty shy. It's funny, I told people I wanted to be a singer, but I never sang. I didn't even know if I actually could," she said.

Though talented enough to be selected for a junior high school magnet program in music, she didn't start belting and wailing until much later. "Freshman year in high school, I started listening to Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix, plus some indie stuff like Jon Spencer Blues Explosion," she explained, though noting that up until signing with Fat Possum last year, her main exposure to that label's signature style was through time spent cocktail waitressing at a local blues bar. After a stint playing bass for the Ohio-based Shesus, Wennerstrom began putting together her own bands, a process that ultimately culminated in the Heartless Bastards.

Last year, an earlier iteration of the Heartless Bastards put out a five-song, self-produced EP that built a buzz and attracted the attention of the Black Keys' drummer, Patrick Carney. "We had played a show with the Black Keys in Newport, Kentucky, and then we played a show in Akron for about five people, and Patrick happened to be one of the five people," Wennerstrom said, adding that she gave him a CD at that concert. Carney was impressed enough with the show to forward the CD to Fat Possum's Matthew Johnson, who, on hearing the CD, invited the band to New York City to record a few songs.

Those sessions, recorded by Chris Coady at Quad Studios, resulted in the Heartless Bastards' signing with Fat Possum, though only one song, "New Resolution," made it onto the album. "A lot of the stuff we wanted to re-do, because we didn't really approach them in the spirit of doing the album — plus we had gotten about four hours of sleep trying to get there in time," Wennerstrom remembered.

Fat Possum sprung for a second session at Money Shot studio in Water Valley, Mississippi, where the band laid down 12 tracks in three days. The band ended with a third session in nearby Newport, Kentucky, where they cleaned up vocals and finished the album that became Stairs and Elevators.

Part of the challenge, Wennerstrom said, was re-recording the five tracks from the EP — "Pass and Fail," "Autonomy," "Onion," "The Will Song," and "Runnin'" — with a totally different band. During the interim between the EP and the album, the Heartless Bastards' lead guitar player quit, leaving Wennestrom and her bandmates the task of recreating those early songs. "The songs sound a lot different, because they're completely different musicians, and also there was ... you know, there were two guitars on every song," she said. "I was really proud of what I did at that time, but it's hard to recapture it. Now I'm kind of ready to move on and be what we are now."

Through their relationship with Fat Possum, the band also got a chance to contribute a track to Sunday Nights: The Songs of Junior Kimbrough, a tribute to the legendary blues guitarist and singer. Their track "Done Got Old," which also appears on Stairs and Elevators, sits alongside contributions from Iggy Pop and the Stooges, the Fiery Furnaces, The Ponys, Spiritualized, the Black Keys, Cat Power and Blues Explosion, a fact that still seems to amaze and astonish Wennerstrom. "It's pretty crazy, kind of weird in a good way," she mused. "There's a lot of people on there that at some point I've spent a lot of time listening to."

The Heartless Bastards are touring this month, hitting mostly Midwestern cities, but making a stop at SXSW at Club DeVille in Austin on March 17. For complete dates, see the Fat Possum Web site. — Jennifer Kelly [Wednesday, March 16, 2005]

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