Howl On the Haunted Beat You Ride tempts the point where reverence for the past spills into mannered indulgence. The third release from the Go (once a stopgap for Jack White), Howl continues the Detroit garage clan’s modus operandi of splicing and dicing hallowed forebears. Their first two releases, 1999’s Whatcha Doin’ and 2003’s self-titled effort, boiled vintage R&B, the Rolling Stones, Iggy Pop, T Rex, and other fail-safe sources into pop-wise nuggets of splashy fuzz-rock. Now the pastiche fixates on such late greats as Loaded-era Velvet Underground and Lou Reed, etched with the colorful psychedelia of mod pop. The Go bask in the glow of this revivalist spirit so completely as to eliminate all irony from their nostalgia. But lost too is any remnant of a singular stamp. Howl gazes backwards, never inwards.
Leadman Bobby Harlow recently observed: “We (the band) were not made for these times. I don’t know why.” There is existential certainty and confusion in this remark, making it ripe for subtextual treatment. This task, however, is too weighty and gray for the Go, who are only occupied with flattering the past through full-bore imitation. Howl’s cover art finds the four bandmates huddled about, peering this way and that. Imagine Rubber Soul but ten paces back from the original vantage point. Their appearances, from the moppy hair to the black color motif to the striped threads, seem the work of a costume designer. True to yore, songs 1-6 comprise “Side One” and 7-12, “Side Two”. The question hurriedly arrives: are these natural artistic urges or conscious, knee-jerk grabs from the past?
Kitsch lurks in the details and litters the more obvious, i.e., the music. The Go calibrate all of Howl to a pre-set, pre-‘80s style and, in this regard, their songs achieve firm aesthetic consistency. Harlow’s production favors the lo-fi, rickety guitar rustles, crisp rhythms, and colorful sonic miscellany. But the execution is trite, cutesy throwback, with no unique re-workings. Nudged along by hand-claps and a light crackle of guitars, “Invisible Friends” is so simple, so inoffensive, so Turtles. As with much of Howl, its effect is pleasantly insubstantial, and only calls to mind the Go’s superiorly talented inspirations. Late Velvet Underground is the most oft-spotted muse. Like Loaded, Howl often finds rock and A.M. pop meeting in the middle, though the convergence is mostly stale. The strutting gallop and hokey title of “Yer Stoned Italian Cowboy” brazenly dress the ditty up as “Lonesome Cowboy Bill”-type spaghetti pop and spoil its nervy, vocally-driven third act. “So Long Johnny”, too, smacks of a VU cover outfit glibly attempting original material with Loaded as the guiding blueprint. Howl is peppered with these prompts to the past, like a musical version of product (i.e., band) placement.
Even if broadly derivative, at least the tunes act as a partial primer for the best of classic pop-rock. In Harlow’s lyrics is the worst of that category: the brand of overly saccharine, simplistic, hackneyed, and libido-less imagery that serves more as an excuse for efficiently rhyming couplets. Dusty throwaways like “There’s no question you’re so cute” (from “You Go Bangin’ On”) and “Havin’ some fun / Breakin’ the rules” (“Invisible Friends”) strain believability. They simply can’t be natural output. Even if you concede their fetching sweetness, the 21st century, with its muddled morality and altered mores, has blocked all room for resonance. Consider the Beach Boys’ classic “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”. Brian Wilson’s display of guileless emotion remains pure and wholly plausible but now seems slightly distant because of our radically changed times. Where does that place a limp dud such as “I remember sunny days”? The song titles even grate. “Caroline” and “Mary Ann” only invite sneering comparisons. Harlow’s absurdly dated writing creates an echo chamber in which the band can frolic, carouse, and stay safely sealed-off from contemporary norms.
Howl just isn’t convincing, even if you don’t question the sincerity of the Go’s aims. Due to the obstinate totality of their stylistic rewind, they aren’t revivalist as much as they are regressive. Modern life is banal, perhaps rubbish, to them and not worth sonically bridging to the sacrosanct past. Howl burns these bridges, disconnects from the 21st century ear, and ends up sounding like a stunt performed, paradoxically, with heart and aloofness.