By now, every educated Cincinnati music fan knows the story of the Heartless Bastards. Everything from taking their name from a bar-room electronic game, to their Dayton/Cincinnati roots, to their subsequent breakup and Erikaâ€™s move to Austin, Texas, where she reformed the group with a new band of musicians. The Bastards have been on the rise for the last several years, drawing opening slots for the likes of Lucinda Williams and Wilco, and more national attention than nearly any other act to emerge from the city in this decade. But it all began with Stairs and Elevators.
Seemingly straight out of a Northside garage emerged a voice. Sounding like a mixture of Robert Plant and Janis Joplin, Erika Wennerstrom brought the Heartless Bastards to the forefront of the Cincinnati music scene with her vocal chords. It really didnâ€™t matter what kind of music was behind her, Wennerstrom and her pipes would have eventually surfaced from the crowded Midwest music scene at some point. Of course, it didnâ€™t hurt that the music smacked you around a little bit.
Stairs and Elevators isnâ€™t shy. It hits you in the face right away with arguably the best track Wennerstrom has ever written, â€œGrayâ€. The song is so good that the Bastards still close their shows with it to this day. There was nothing spectacular in the writing or chord progressions, but the songs were packaged with a deep blues spontaneity that complemented Wennerstromâ€™s vocals perfectly. Wennerstromâ€™s lyrics embodied the malaise of Cincinnati winters, where the sun seemingly disappears for three months. The opening bass and drums of â€œNew Resolutionâ€, the double-time switch in â€œSwamp Songâ€, and the all-out force of â€œLazyâ€ gave this album the chops it needed to make a debut mark on the national landscape. But it never quite did that.
In 2005, Ohio and Michigan were emerging as the breeding ground for a garage rock revival, with The White Stripes and The Black Keys playing prominent roles on the national music scene. The Heartless Bastards fit into that scene exceptionally well, with their enigmatic lead vocalist that seemingly struggled to make it through live shows, the backing of fellow Ohioans The Black Keys, and the songs off of Stairs and Elevators to back it up. It also probably didnâ€™t hurt that Wennerstrom was a very crushable lead female. And yet, somehow, even with all of this in their corner, Stairs and Elevators never quite broke Cincinnatiâ€™s favorite garage rockers. It definitely makes me wonder what the future sounds of the Heartless Bastards would have been like if it did.
While All This Time and The Mountain are both good albums in their own right, neither of them stands up to the honesty, grit, and attitude that Stairs and Elevators possesses. Wennerstrom was at her best when she was at her lowest, wearing a black t-shirt, and just not giving a fuck. It is interesting that the cover of the album depicts the original trio of the Heartless Bastards, the lineup that while perhaps not the most musically adept, gave the band the most firepower. Mike Lamping standing stage left, lighting a cigarette five minutes into the show, and Kevin Vaughn smashing his highly placed cymbals gave this band the feel that they could get away with playing garage rock for the rest of their lives. And a sometimes fickle Cincinnati music scene embraced that feeling, pushing them past the bounds of I-275.
Whether they werenâ€™t ready at the time, or whether the album just didnâ€™t get the backing it deserves, we may never know. But Stairs and Elevators stands as an album that defines Cincinnati, for this decade or any other. The city and music scene continue to support the band, and undoubtedly will for many years to come, regardless of where they call home because in the end, we canâ€™t forget that trio in black.