Heartless Bastards – Restless Ones (2015)

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As the opening track unfolds, it seems as if Restless Ones will be the arena-trembling big-eared rock record the Heartless Bastards have been destined to make from the beginning. “Wind Up Bird” is followed, however, by the more pop-leaning “Gates of Dawn,” and it quickly becomes clear that their new album is going to be something else, instead — one that continues the more low-key approach of 2012’s Arrow, even as they add another layer of production gloss.

In truth, a too-polished sound would have been a small price to pay for the opportunity to hear Erika Wennerstrom and company grip it and rip it once more, but Restless Ones (due June 16, 2015 via Partisan Records) is more aspirational, and at times more frustrating, than that.

On one level, Restless Ones (due June 15, 2015 via Partisan Records) sounds the way it should, like a Austin-by-way-of-Cincinnati group testing their boundaries through 10 days of completely focused creative isolation in the wilds of El Paso’s Sonic Ranch.

Left to their own devices like that, the Heartless Bastards predictably came up with a shit-kicking honky-tonk aside like “Pocket Full of Thirst.” A mandolin creeps into “Hi-Line,” too. But they also began furiously stirring the pot, bringing in influences as delectably diverse as Syd Barrett, the Byrds and the Faces. Combined with their own blues-leaning tendencies, and a touch of 13th Floor Elevators-style psych rock, the songs gain an idiosyncratic kind of propulsion through to the brilliantly off-kilter, feedback-laden closer “Tristessa.”

On the other hand, Restless Ones doesn’t sound the way it should, as Grammy-winning producer John Congelton (Swans, St. Vincent) moves the Heartless Bastards well out of their original lo-fi beginnings — trading garage-rock grit for a sleek, sometimes lifeless feel personified in the bombast of “Journey.” Erika Wennerstrom’s often diaphanous lyrics, simultaneously personal and image filled, move forward in this gleaming new mix. That saves them from getting subsumed in the tornadic guitar noise of old, but some element of the danger is lost, too, some part of the risk.

And so, the perfect Heartless Bastards album is still out there, one that combines the contemplative smarts of Arrow and the gutsy musical experimentation of Restless Ones — but within the more organic, far-less-fussy settings of old.

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