Heartless Bastards: The Mountain

Gnarlier than a century-old live oak, Heartless Bastards' The Mountain plugs the Cincinnati-born trio's scorching postmodern blues — their debut, 2006's All This Time, could skin a cat — into the eerie backwoods folk of Greil Marcus's semi-­mythical "old, weird America." Opener "The Mountain" is an epic Neil Young & Crazy Horse earth-mover, with psychedelic pedal-steel flourishes that help singer Erika Wennerstrom (who has since relocated to Austin) don the dire Old Testament mantle she carries throughout the album: "Spilt blood on this place / It only echoes true through all the days." The Mountain's 11 songs form a spellbinding account of Wennerstrom's attempts to reconcile her inner demons (the honky-tonkish "Nothing Seems the Same") and take a few shots at those who have crossed her path (splintering rocker "Early in the Morning"), set against an elemental backdrop of a "wicked sun" and "paper skies." Still, it's not without hope: "Things will work out soon / Things will come round again," advises the Stonesy "Hold Your Head High." The purest pearl, however — edging out Hank Williams hand-me-down (there's even a midnight train) "Could Be So Happy" — comes in spooky Appalachian waltz "Had to Go": "When you take the bark off the tree, it's standing stark." So is she.

 
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