“It’s ALIVE! ALIVE, I tell you!”
Yup, roughly ten minutes into Howler’s debut, I was rolling my hands maniacally with glee, giggling, bug-eyed and pacing the laboratory like Dr. Frankenstein during a perfect storm. “Rock ‘n’ roll is dead, hey?? Wait until they get a load of these guys! Mu-ha-ha-ha, etc.” Meet America Give Up, 32 minutes of snotty, bratty, loud, potty-mouthed rock ‘n’ roll. Howler’s fresh-faced quintuplets are born kicking ‘n’ screaming and ‘gift wrapped with a studded bow ready to annoy the hell out of your neighbours. Igor, lower the drawbridge ... .
America Give Up (a perfect “Stick ‘em up, muthafuckers” title for a debut) comes out swingin’ from the first bell and barely lets up. It cracks such a whiplash pace you’ll need a sit-down and a cup of sugary tea. Opener “Beach Sluts” (yes, really) kicks down the front door in typically bullish style. Sixties girl group handclaps, stop-start rockabilly drums followed by a Mohican mosh pit speedball chorus. “I’m so lazy I won’t believe in anything else,” it spits amid a tsunami of hair, cigarettes ‘n’ cheap liquor. Nihilistic, trashy, degenerate ... and lovin’ it. The 10 songs that follow buzz by in similarly impolite fashion – two-and-a half minute spurts loaded with chainsaw guitars, surf riffs and go-go dancer rhythms. It’s the spirit of the Ramones: fast, furious and, yup, often ridiculous.
It’s the first half though in particular that packs the toughest, Dirty Harry “D’ya feel lucky ... punk?” unflinching glare. “Back to the Grave” is the Dandy Warhols at their most swaggeringly cocky ‘n’ confident, whilst “This One’s Different” is the Strokes with (wow!) an actual sense of humour and a side order of geek. “I need you ... right NOWWWWWW” demands doe-eyed beanpole and chief firestarter Jordan Gatesmith like some Little Lord Fauntleroy in rags. It’s impossible not to be swept into its dorky, speedball rush which spins contagiously danceable in a slam-dancin’, spit n’ sawdust, “Did I lose a tooth?” way. It also prompts some serious foot on amp air-axe riffery. You’re my guitar heroooo.
For such fresh-outta-diapers whippersnappers, they know their musical lineage, and, being youth gone wild, they pilfer with abandon. “America” shows they’ve been rifling through Grandpa’s Duane Eddy and Link Wray as much as their Pa’s Black Flag and Clash. It weaves a strong web of the constructive and the destructive, the dumb ‘n’ the smart. “A shotgun wedding at a quarter to five / I shot the husband and I’ll sleep with the bride.” Sch-mokin’! The centrepiece teardrop-tattoo “Too Much Blood” meanwhile is Lloyd Cole crooning the Jesus & Mary Chain’s “Just Like Honey” and is the closest we get to a mirrorball slowdance. It is blackeyes, regrets and roses, backed by an alleycat Greek chorus of hobos and winos. A classy spark of reflection, it’ll become a key witness for their defence. Elsewhere, the pretty, locomotion shuffle of “Free Drunk” echoes the wistful daydreamer nation of Sonic Youth at their most melodic before the cheerleaders-gone-bad holler of “Black Lagoon” closes the album in a haze of gunfire and a parting splash of Nirvana’s Bleach.
What makes America more than Beavis & Butthead with a Backbeat is Howler’s ability to lace their Molotovs with luscious, lemonade pop. Underneath the gravelly-voices and fake I.D. is a pop tart aching to breakout which makes the second side of America noticeably warmer. The two shiny, slick singles “Told You Once” and “Back of Your Neck” are pop gold. The skiffle-tastic former sees Elvis’ “His Latest Flame” wrestling the Cure’s “Close to Me” and rolls giddy with the joy, abandonment and reckless energy of youth. Its hedonist manifesto “I’ll feel like shit tomorrow but I feel fine today” tips a knowing wink before surrendering into happy clapper deliriousness. “Back Of Your Neck” itself sounds like Pulp’s “Babies” as performed by the once great white hopes, the Libertines. “You think we’re Bonnie and Clyde / But both of them fucking died”. It’s charming, laugh-out-loud funny and the Matador bravado, stop-start dynamics prove Howler are one seriously tight band.
If it’s a prerequisite for great Rock n’ Roll – and AGU brushes great Rock n’ Roll – that it must be equally loathed and loved, there is plenty to fan the flames here. Clearly, Gatesmith has the vocals of a loon. Jordan (who incidentally looks about 12 – does your Mother know you’re out late?) frequents the James Osterberg School of Elocution for Ambitious Snarlers. Luckily he’s in the business where this can be an advantage. He’s got attitude ‘n’ ideas and one day son this’ll all be yours and God help me, I’d rather have infinite Howler growlers than another “On a journey of self discovery” American Idol, sing-a-million-notes-when-one-will-do “vocalist”. Howler will also likely suffer some heavy fire for their “magpie technique”, too, but hey it proves at least they’ve done their homework. The album sleeve is indefensible though, sorry chaps.
America Give Up finds rock ‘n’ roll in rude health. It’s teenage kicks all through the night (alright!) and, just like real adolescence, it’s bright-eyed, brash, feral, messy, full of testosterone, and often tipsy. But, hot diggety damn, it sure raises hell, meaning a lot of sensible folk will wanna live vicariously through this riotous debut (although probably not Vicars). As with all cheap thrills, AGU‘s delights may be fleeting and occasionally suffer a lack of depth, but hey in the era of “The New Boring” musical landscape, I’ll take what I can get, thanks. Fans of chaos ‘n’ mayhem rejoice at the thought of the ensuing shitstorm that Howler wish to bring to your airbrushed ghost towns! Alongside the likes of the Horrors, Yuck and the Smith Westerns, there rumbles a burgeoning resistance to the dying of the rock ‘n’ roll light. In other words, comrades, we may still have a pulse.
- Multiple songs MySpace
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work as independent cultural critics and historians. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times where costs have risen and advertising has dropped precipitously. We need your help to keep PopMatters strong and growing. Thank you.
"PopMatters (est. 1999) is a respected source for smart long-form reading on a wide range of topics in culture. PopMatters serves as…READ the article