“I could be so funny if I could quit being a drag,” sings Erika Wennerstrom near the onset of her third and finest Heartless Bastards album, The Mountain. The line, part of a pseudo self-help mantra during Could Be So Funny, is an acoustic treat with a decidedly pop feel that is just one of The Mountain‘s many curve ball boulders.
But at heart, the tune is pretty deceptive. Could Be So Funny is essentially something out of Oz or, as Wennerstrom terms it, an “odyssey through concrete and steel.” The “no place like home” feel is just as persistent as when Dorothy pined for Kansas, but just as elusive and distant. It’s as if the clipped scenarios suggested by the verses (“I could be so happy…, I could be so funny…, I could be so sweet…”) might actually be realized with a few clicks of the ol’ ruby slippers. But they aren’t. Not in any real sense.
The album-opening title tune opens up like a vintage Neil Young and Crazy Horse rocker. Pedal steel lines seem to run out to the ozone while the cranky guitar sludge Wennerstrom sets against her deflated vocals defines the mood. “It’s hard to get ahead when the center is bleeding,” she sings.
In the end, The Mountain is neither blindingly sunny nor desperately forlorn. It simply moves in unceremonious but purposeful terms. It rocks as resolutely as either of Wennerstrom’s two previous Heartless Bastards albums even though the music opens up with strains of aggravated Appalachian reflection and ragged country soul.
First of all, there’s that voice. Wennerstrom’s doesn’t sing so much as bellow during the album’s best moments. On Out at Sea, she matches a moan to her band’s rugged backbeat while trying to pin the freefalling lyrics (“I’m out at sea and I’m floating away”) onto a surface that continually shifts past her. The fact most of those moves are in slow motion makes The Mountain even more fascinating. But in terms of musical and emotive sentiments, the album never anchors itself down.
Perhaps the biggest surprise here is Had to Go, a primitive meditation of change told not by the trio’s muddy electric charge but through guitar, fiddle and banjo. After all, what would The Mountain be without an element of mountain music?
One might find a reference to Wennerstrom’s status as a tranplanted Texan in the lyrics, considering she relocated from the Cincinnati/Dayton area to Austin last year. But it’s tough to accept that she would ever be so literal. The tune has too great an air of desolation to make it a symbol of creative or personal change. It is, more likely, just another blurred snapshot of Wennerstrom’s world in motion.
If Wennerstrom and Heartless Bastards have any remote contemporary reference to fall in line with, it would be the post punk music Johnette Napolitano fashioned in the early ‘90s with Concrete Blonde. Like Napolitano, Wennerstrom conducts a considerable emotive sweep with her singing. But she also leaves more blanks in her songs. The Mountain never wraps up its open and sometimes raw emotive state with easy answers any more than it slicks the sound down with obvious or even complete production tricks.
In essence, The Mountain is a monument. It’s a purposely incomplete and unfinished one. But it’s a monument nonetheless, and one of the most captivating rock records of the young year.