The Heartless Bastards and the Tough & Lovely are two Ohio bands that play what could be called “straight-ahead” or “no frills” rock (as one reviewer described the Heartless Bastards), though in my lexicon “straight-ahead” can be code for “shuns prettiness” or “lacks ambition” or “never got the hang of synthesizers” or “tries to make a virtue of sartorial paralysis,” all of which are apt but fortunately aren’t the whole story. The Tough & Lovely grab great wads of ’60s garage rock and soul, though they come across as just a set-’em-up-and-rock-’em-down dance band, really. This is not true to the actual ’60s, which were full of frills and trendies and tangents, but is right for the group’s spirit. Think of the Tough & Lovely as a cover band in your local bar who surprise you by the intensity and the passion with which they bash out ’60s hits. What surprises me is that all the cuts on Born of the Stars are originals, not covers, and that many of them are good enough to pass for actual hit singles. What frustrates me is that the band’s roughness undercuts the songs: For instance, although Lara Yazvac’s voice is appealing in its thickness and its emotion, it’s so out of tune that some of the tracks—the soul songs in particular, which demand precision as well as passion—are almost unlistenable. Mainstream engineering and electronic aids might be what this band requires. Really, you’re allowed to do this, to ask the slicksters for help when it’s what your music needs.
The Heartless Bastards on the other hand are deadeye accurate in pitch and message. “My feet won’t move an inch/Because my feet are frozen.” Yet “the beat be-beat is what I found.” Their Stairs and Elevators is too unadorned for its own good, but its sparseness points up the band’s main paradox: a shy, self-effacing singer with a totally arresting voice. The singer—Erika Wennerstrom—is her own guitarist and songwriter, and her basic strum accompanies her vocals without engaging them; she ought to hook up with a Jimmy Page type, a prankster guitarist who could trick her out of her shell. In the meantime, what we’ve got is a hard, gnarled voice singing simple-seeming melodies that feel archetypal rather than ordinary, which is no easier to explain than it is to do. Of course, some of these tracks are just a handclap and a yeah-yeah-yeah away from pop ebullience, but don’t tell anybody.