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Austin's Heartless Bastards deliver a career-best album with 'A Beautiful Life'

Erika Wennerstrom's band Heartless Bastards has released its new album, "A Beautiful Life," and will play ACL Fest in October.

Austin360 On The Record is a weekly roundup of new, recent and upcoming releases by local and Austin-associated recording artists. 

New releases

Heartless Bastards, “A Beautiful Life” (Sweet Unknown/Thirty Tigers). When Erika Wennerstrom released her solo debut “Sweet Unknown” in 2018, it appeared she might be done with Heartless Bastards. That wasn’t necessarily a big change, as she was always at the helm of the rock band that formed 18 years ago in Ohio before moving to Austin in 2007.

So it’s no big surprise, nor any big sonic shift, that she’s returned to using the Heartless Bastards name. And yet, that solo turn may have re-energized her, because “A Beautiful Life” is the best record she’s ever made.

The revealing moment is right up front. Released last year as a single, "Revolution" is a powerful anthem that begins with simple acoustic guitar strums and gradually builds to a grand crashing crescendo of sound. All the while, Wennerstrom recites deeply affecting lyrics that bring to mind mid-1960s Dylan, the emotion building in her delivery with every verse and feeding into a central politics-is-personal premise: “The revolution is in your mind.”

That would be enough to make “A Beautiful Life” something special, but the 10 tracks that follow build on the opening salvo. Track 2, “How Low,” rides a very different wave musically, with Wennerstrom’s versatile voice drawing on a higher-pitched, more mellifluous tone to match a radiant pop tune that contrasts the more serious message of the words: “The world has so much needless suffering … On and on it never stops, how much do you really need?”

Erika Wennerstrom, seen here at South by Southwest in 2015, co-produced the new Heartless Bastards album with Kevin Ratterman.

From there, it’s off to the races, through the gently hopeful folk-rock of the title track (“It’s a beautiful life, if you let it be”), to the mystical minor-key wanderings of “The River,” to the multilayered opus “Photograph” that progresses through changing tempos and moods. The album comes full-circle on “The Thinker,” a bookending finale that mirrors “Revolution” in mood and concept as it reaches a heartfelt conclusion: “I did it all for love, and I’d do it again … Don't worry about material things, in the end there's nothing they bring.”

Wennestrom favors longer explorations here — two tracks run past six minutes, with four others beyond the five-minute mark. And yet it never feels unfocused: Those songs are longer for a reason, with a purpose and structure beyond just extended jams.

Co-producing the album with Kevin Ratterman, Wennerstrom brought aboard an exemplary supporting cast for “A Beautiful Life,” supplementing longtime Heartless Bastards bassist Jesse Ebaugh with ace local guitarists David Pulkingham (Patty Griffin) and Lauren Gurgiolo (Okkervil River), as well as former White Denim drummer Gregory Clifford, My Morning Jacket keyboardist Bo Koster and multi-instrumentalist Jesse Chandler. Whatever the name on the cover, "A Beautiful Life" is one sweet record.

Playing Oct. 8 at Austin City Limits Music Festival. Here’s the video for “How Low”:

Intercom Heights, “Night Measures.” I first wrote about Harris Thurmond for the American-Statesman in 1991, when his Seattle band Hammerbox was on tour playing a Sixth Street club just as that city’s music scene was going supernova. Hammerbox wasn’t grunge, but they had a hard edge, largely courtesy of Thurmond’s guitar work, balanced against singer Carrie Akre’s winning blend of melody and intensity.

Fast-forward 30 years, and Harris is in Austin, having moved here 15 years ago for gainful employment in the tech sector. He can’t get music out of his system, though. After post-Hammerbox ventures with That Petrol Emotion singer Steve Mack before he left Seattle and a few years with Austin indie band New Roman Times, Thurmond recently formed Intercom Heights with bassist Josie Fluri and keyboardist Meg Bernhard.

The result is the best music Thurmond has ever made. “Night Measures” draws inspiration from 1980s new wave and 21st-century electronica, projecting a cool sonic sheen that serves as a foil for lyrics alive with wide-eyed wonder and hard-earned soul. Not a naturally gifted singer, Thurmond steps boldly out front anyway, using his limitations to enhance the music’s calmly restrained vibe and smartly shadowing his vocals with unison parts from Fluri and Bernhard that draw out the songs’ enchanting melodies.

My instant favorite of these eight tracks was “Sleepwalking,” which radiates with uplifting keyboard swells and glorious noise-guitar accents against wisely varied percussion programming. If it brings to mind, say, 1984 Psychedelic Furs funneled through 2020 Sylvan Esso, that’s not a charge of derivation but rather a signal of the musical quality Intercom Heights has divined.

“Fascinated” is a close second, with a steady beat that propels the catchy chorus (“I’m fascinated by you, honey”) while Thurmond colors the corners with impressionistic vignettes in the verses (“You’re reading horoscopes with the lights turned down,” “We’re drinking wine on the fire escape”). But really, what’s best about “Night Measures” is how well all the tracks blend into a cohesive whole, casting an atmospheric spell that carries throughout the record’s 30-minute runtime.

Release show Sept. 10 at Long Play East. Here’s the video for the opening track, “Right Here”:

Chris Beall, “Abilene.” Known for his work with all-star local collective the South Austin Moonlighters, Beall follows previous solo releases “Brand New World” and “The Gin Mill Hymns” with this 10-song set of Americana-centered fare. Originally from the town that gives this album its title, Beall arrived in Austin after a stint in Nashville, and elements of all those locales are evident here, from the wide-open horizons of West Texas to the sharply honed craft of Music City to the collaborative spirit of the Austin scene.

“For this record, it was generally simple tried-and-true combinations that really hit the spot,” Beall noted in press materials accompanying the album. His backing players included ace bassist Harmoni Kelley, steel guitarist Geoff Queen, keyboardists Lewis Stevens and Ron Flynt, and drummers Pat Manske, Fred Mandujano and Jim Echels. Walt and Tina Wilkins added backing vocals. A highlight is Beall’s rich rendition of Bob Childers’ “Restless Spirits,” a song popularized in part by the late Austin troubadour Jimmy LaFave.

Release show Sept. 10 at Saxon Pub. Here’s the opening track, “Big Blue World”:

Conspirare, “Close to You: Carillon Christmas 2019.” The Grammy-winning choral ensemble gears up for the coming holiday season by releasing this hourlong set that documents a holiday performance two years ago at historic local chapel the Carillon. Seasonal favorites (“Silent Night,” “The Chanukah Song”) share space with secular material (the title track, written by Burt Bacharach and popularized by the Carpenters) as well as spiritual classics such as “This Little Light of Mine.” Soloists on the disc’s 27 tracks are Mela Sarajane Dailey, Stefanie Moore, Kathlene Ritch, Simon Barrad, David Kurtenbach, Carr Hornbuckle and Drayton Eggleson. This year’s Conspirare Christmas show is Dec. 6 at the Long Center.

Conspirare's recently released “Close to You: Carillon Christmas 2019" kicks off the holiday season in local fashion.

RELATED:Conspirare Christmas makes the season feel a little more normal

Coming soon

SEPT. 17: Jimmie Vaughan, “The Jimmie Vaughan Story” box set (Last Music), playing Sept. 15 at Erwin Center (opening for Eric Clapton)

SEPT. 17: Rod Gator, “For Louisiana” (Blue Elan), release show Sept. 17 at Far Out Lounge

SEPT. 17: Pulkingham Layne, “D Shack,” release show Sept. 18 at Parker Jazz Club

SEPT. 17: Foxtales, “Perfect Landing” EP, release show Sept. 18 at Swan Dive

SEPT. 24: Jackie Venson, “Love Transcends,” playing Oct. 22 at Old Settler’s Music Festival

SEPT. 24: Tony Kamel, “Back Down Home” (Next Waltz), playing Oct. 22 at Old Settler’s Music Festival

OCT. 1: Various artists, “Mighty Fine: An Austin City Limits Tribute to Walter Hyatt” (Omnivore), release show with Warren Hood and guests Oct. 1 at Saxon Pub 

OCT. 1: Strand of Oaks, “In Heaven” (Thirty Tigers), playing Nov. 12 at Mohawk

OCT. 6: Invincible Czars, “Ain’t Talkin’ ’Bout Love” (Van Halen tribute)

OCT. 8: Carolyn Wonderland, “Tempting Fate” (Alligator), playing Oct. 23 at Old Settler's Music Festival

OCT. 8: Go Fever, “Velvet Fist” (Nine Mile)

OCT. 14: Buenos Diaz, “Live at Bobo’s”

OCT. 15: Buffalo Nichols, self-titled (Fat Possum)

OCT. 15: David Beck’s Tejano Weekend, “Vol. II”

OCT. 15: Sarah & the Sundays, “The Living End”

OCT. 22: Sue Foley, “Pinky’s Blues”

FYI: HAAM Day

The Heath Alliance for Austin Musicians’ annual fundraiser will feature dozens of local acts taking part in virtual presentations, with donations accepted online at myhaam.org/donate. Here’s how to tune in.

  • 9 a.m.: One-hour program airing on CBS Austin, with Britt Daniel & Sabrina Ellis, David Ramirez, the Peterson Brothers, Jonathan Terrell, Akina Adderley and more.
  • 4 p.m.: One-hour program airing on KVUE, with Bob Schneider, Charley Crockett, Superfónicos, Jesse Dayton, Mama Duke and more.
  • 7 p.m: Two-hour program airing on KXAN, KBVO and CW Austin, with Black Pumas, Asleep at the Wheel, Jimmie Vaughan, Sir Woman, Marcia Ball/Carolyn Wonderland/Shelley King, Vallejo and more.
  • 6 a.m. to 9 p.m.: Longer sets from a dozen local acts, including Nané, Bidi Bidi Banda, Miggy Milla & Tje Austin, Scrappy Jud Newcomb, livestreamed from Waterloo Park at facebook.com/myhaam. (The in-person event is not open to the general public.)

In addition, many artists will stream HAAM Day sets from their individual Facebook pages throughout the day. Full schedule at myhaam.org/haam-day.

More from Austin360 On The Record:

SEPT. 3:Joe King Carrasco, Terri Hendrix, Flyjack, David Beck, Parker Woodland

AUG. 27:Blk Odyssy, Shinyribs, Suzanne Santo, Alejandro Escovedo Bob Schneider, Altin Sencalar

AUG. 20:James McMurtry, William Harries Graham, Belle Sounds