The Heartless Bastards Have Heart
Back in July, I wrote about the three song playlist of new material from The Heartless Bastards called Photograph, after the lead off song. At the time, I noted the retro stylings of the songs, especially the late 60s vibe. The album, A Beautiful Life, has since been released and it has followed that vibe throughout the album.
This is something of a trend these days. Artists as diverse as Billie Eilish, Lana Del Rey, and St, Vincent have released albums full of songs that seem to have come out of a time warp from mid-20th century US and Britain. I don’t know what it is about the pandemic that has caused modern artists to dip into the past. Perhaps it’s the realization that a lot of modern music is made for teen age girls raised on Disney TV. Maybe current genres of music have just run their course. The results have been mixed, to say the least. Eilish’s retro 50s, 60s, and 70s music made for an inconsistent album while Del Rey’s attempt at retro jazz was just awful. St. Vincent, on the other hand, created a masterpiece of retro-modern fusion that was one of the highlights of 2021.
Given the track record of bands adopting retro styles, I was a bit worried about this new album by the Heartless Bastards. It was a clear departure from their folk and folk country music of the past. I knew that the three songs I had heard previously were great songs but was concerned that they would mix them with other genres to created the kind of confused mess that Billie Eilish put out. Thankfully, my concerns were misplaced. A Beautiful Life is a wonderful dip back into the past that hangs together nicely.
This is a retro album without a shred of modernity. It fully embraces the late 60s and early 70s, especially the mellower side of the radio dial. The Heartless Bastards dive deep into psychedelia, 60’s soft rock and pop rock, folk rock, and 70’s soft rock. There is even a touch of Baroque rock and prog rock. Tying it all together is a string orchestra that brings that true 60s and 70s AM radio sound to the music. The vocals also help. Erika Wennerstrom’s voice is deep and rich, deep enough that you might mistake it for a high male voice. Stylistically, she reminds me most of Sandy Denney with graceful, slow lines and a touch of vibrato. This suits the music well and meshes with the band and orchestra. Overall, it produces a warm sound that is reminiscent of the Strawbs or Renaissance.
The album begins with “Revolution”. The chorus, “The revolution is in your mind”, sounds like it was pulled right out of the Vietnam era. It is the type of psychedelia with political overtones that you would expect from the Jefferson Airplane or the Doors. The psychedelia becomes even more pronounced with this slow bluesy guitar bridge that could easily have been a sample from a Donavon record of that era. “The River” and “The Thinker” both employ psychedelia tropes, but to positive effect. They are dreamy and slow – the kind of music you would listen to if you were on shrooms – with strings adding color. “The River” even has something that sounds like a sitar, playing the sort of riffs that George Harrison plays on The White Album. It’s all very groovy, man.
One of these more psychedelic songs, “Photograph” is one of the standout songs on the album. It sounds like that intersection of progressive and psychedelia common in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It immediate evokes bands like Pink Floyd, Strawbs (in their more prog rock era), and especially, Renaissance. It is lush and slow and lava lamp ready.
There’s quite a bit of 60’s soft pop on A Beautiful Life as well. “When I Was Younger” uses the 60’s style string orchestration to create a lush sound reminiscent of “To Sir, With Love” and similar AM fodder from that era. “Dust” brings back a more folk sound but in a Sandy Denney/Strawbs manner. “You Never Know” amps up the strings while adding some middle eastern motifs. “Went Around the World” takes the orchestration to its logical extreme and adds some soul, creating a sound like the theme from a 60’s James Bond Movie. I kept thinking of the Shirley Bassey songs for “Goldfinger” and “Diamonds Are Forever”. All very 60’s and British.
The final dominant style is 70’s soft rock. Songs like “How Low”, “Doesn’t Matter How”, and “A Beautiful Life” are all 70s AM radio ready songs. “A Beautiful Life” is reminiscent of Bread or Firefall. Back in the 1970s, there was a New York City radio station called WJYE – Joy. The used to advertise that they played “Love songs. Nothing but love songs.” “A Beautiful Life” would have fit nicely in their rotation in 1976 without being so drippy that young people would have hated it. It’s mellow and soft but not stupid.
The important thing about A Beautiful Life is that it is consistent and logical. The album maintains a mostly mellow vibe and songs are slow to mid-tempo. There are no jarring changes in style or arrangements. This is why it (and St. Vincent’s Daddy’s Home) succeed. The production, engineering, and songs are superior. While other artists sound like they are playing around with music from the past, The Heartless Bastards seem to truly appreciate this period and craft music that is a homage to it.
The effect of this appreciation is an album that will delight older listeners who remember that era, while providing younger fans relief from the sameness of much of current popular music. I admit that I was worried when I started listening to A Beautiful Life but ended up feeling like I had just had a worthwhile listen.