Topping The Mountain wasn’t going to be easy for Erika Wennerstrom. The third album by her band Heartless Bastards both expanded the scope of her classic-rock fixation and cut to the quick of her gutsy, roughhewn Americana. Heartless Bastards’ fourth full-length, Arrow, doesn’t shake up that formula one bit. Instead, Wennerstrom has stripped away much of the swampy reverb that admittedly helped make The Mountain so massive—and she’s replaced it with sharper, warmer, more intimate tones that feel as immediate as they do timeless.
None of that would matter, of course, if the songs weren’t there—and in that regard, Arrow is the Bastards’ best album to date. The classic-rock nods are still omnipresent: “Parted Ways” swigs and swaggers like Exile On Main St.-era Stones, with Wennerstrom bittersweetly wailing, “I need a little bit of whiskey and a little bit of time / To ease my troubled mind.” “Got To Have Rock And Roll” stomps with all the glammy, anthemic oomph of T. Rex. “Simple Feeling” hooks and hammers like The Who. And “Late In The Night,” from its title on down to its majestic blues licks and monstrous drumming, is a knock-down, drag-out love letter to Led Zeppelin.
But she takes these inspirations to a quiet place, too. The disc’s most tender song, “Skin And Bone,” slinks along on a weary groove as Wennerstrom strums and pines for less cluttered times: “The rain came down all around / And washed away the industry,” she sings with a sting in her throat before chanting wistfully, “I want it to be like when I was young.” Wennerstrom has never sounded so homespun and soulful. Or as versatile: She spreads her earthy voice across twangy ballads like “Low Low Low” and Sabbath-meets-Crazy Horse mudslides like “Down In The Canyon” with equal grace. Arrow, though, isn’t mere pastiche; it’s Wennerstrom bending tradition to fit the shape of her heartsick, plainspoken confessionals. And her celebrations.