PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.
Music

Howling Bells: Radio Wars

Photo: Josh Logue

The Aussie band has trumped expectations with a brilliant second coming.


Howling Bells

Radio Wars

Label: Independiente
US Release Date: 2009-07-28
UK Release Date: 2009-03-02
Amazon
iTunes

If Howling Bells’ self-titled 2006 debut was a roll in the dust of some lonesome country road with Donnie Darko, Radio Wars has the Sydney foursome unlocking a secret garden where the gnomes and squirrels have picked up instruments and lead singer Juanita Stein is enchantress. Indeed, this long-awaited sophomoric effort, coming three years after Howling Bells, is a conscious romp down nostalgia lane where economic crises and 9-to-5 drudgery are suspended in cinematic fantasy. But like any good fantasy, Gothic forces, far from banished, lurk in the fringes.

The result is a sight-for-sore-eyes beautiful, almost fragile, pop record that you can still chew. And if producing the great follow-up to an opus magnum of a debut has the coveted status of crown jewels, then Howling Bells has not only snared the prize but done it without the courtesy of their former label Bella Union, which has seen its stock soar thanks to the stratospheric success of Fleet Foxes.

As on Howling Bells, Stein’s voice exudes the buttery twee of Camera Obscura’s Tracyanne Campbell and the heartfelt-sans-pomp musical expressiveness of PJ Harvey. On “Treasure Hunt” it is visited by a breathy otherworldly majesty while on “Golden Web” her barbs -- “You bit me / Yeah you bit me/ And you ran away just like a spider” -- are coated with a cuts-like-glass purity that at times rings possessed. The vocal suppleness last relished on “A Ballad for the Bleeding Hearts” shines through on single “In the Chaos” as the composition allows Stein to enter dryly treading a couple of neighbouring tones and then bursting forth in her signature dreamy swoon.

Yet as much as Stein stands out, Howling Bells is foremost a band. And insofar as Howling Bells was grafted with lyrical layers, Radio Wars -- concerned as it is with trite matters of the broken heart, yearnings for simpler times and fears about the unknown future -- shows hitherto unexplored sonic depth. Brother Joel Stein still contributes his bravura guitar skills, but in hailing the synth-mobile the band has pushed its proclivity for theatrical atmospherics, hinted on their debut, into full production.

On opener “Treasure Hunt”, arguably the best of the album’s ten tightly rendered tunes, drum rolls segue into a droning bass and melodramatic airbrushed synths. The scene exacts an eerie infantile charm thanks to a chorus of “ba-ba” on loop. Juanita’s forceful yet diaphanous register as she sings: “We are the watch towers / We are the light that emanates / We are the keys that fits / We are the walls that radiate” goes powerhouse with the boost of Joel’s ghostly vocal mimicry, hyperkinetic synths, and riding drums. All the while Joel’s guitar workmanship provides the listen-carefully-or-you’ll-miss-it beatific flourishes. At less than three minutes, “Treasure Hunt” is clipped before it gets overly precious.

To contrast, the reverie-inducing “Nightingale” builds up from nothing but Juanita’s lulling croon into an otherworldly guitar splendour that is later joined by a chorus of hums, strings, and harp-like sparkling synths.

The anthemic “Let’s Be Kids Again” is arguably the album’s weak link. Due to its pedestrian subject matter yet utterly viral musical aspect, it is really rather annoying. The tickling mandolin and foghorn sounds painting the backdrop as Stein sings (straightfaced) “Let’s be kids again / Life was so simple then” is almost comical in its affectedness.

That said, after not quite four minutes, we move on to “Ms. Bells Song”, another of the album’s highlights. It’s introduced by a quiet guitar strum -- the first pared-back moment on Radio Wars -- and Juanita’s perennially pertinent question: “What makes you happy / All the time?” The song builds up layer upon layer, the cream of which is Joel’s guitar acrobatics. When Juanita gets herself into a tangled knot: “To cry doesn’t make it any easier / To laugh doesn’t always feel right / It’s time that makes it all harder”, the song simultaneously sweetens and spooks with an added glockenspiel. Unexpectedly the climax -- a guitar strum and dash on the crash cymbal -- is lightning-quick for a band that likes to revel at the pinnacle. Although the song concludes with Juanita and the acoustic guitar, it’s really not quite all. The whole idea of “Radio Wars” and the cinematic patina of the album are overtly realised in the Lennon-McCartney-esque coda of “Ms. Bells Song” like a B side. An arpeggiated organ sequence joined by marching drums and a repeat chorus of “Radio Wars are coming” crescendos into an orgy of drums, symbols, voice samples, and sonic flotsam. The result then dissolves aptly into a puddle of interference before it risks becoming tiresome.

As a second album, Radio Wars is almost perfect to a fault. While it consolidates the band’s much-applauded sound, Howling Bells has capitalised on its newfound confidence by burrowing untrodden terrain that offers fans more reason to invest in them a second time. Based solely on its musical sensibilities and lyricism one couldn’t say Radio Wars was a more mature effort than its predecessor. But given that it indicates its creators’ comfort in their being, it certainly sounds grown up.

7

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Television

How 'Watchmen' and 'The Boys' Deconstruct American Fascism

Superhero media has a history of critiquing the dark side of power, hero worship, and vigilantism, but none have done so as radically as Watchmen and The Boys.

Music

Floodlights' 'From a View' Is Classicist Antipodal Indie Guitar Pop

Aussie indie rockers, Floodlights' debut From a View is a very cleanly, crisply-produced and mixed collection of shambolic, do-it-yourself indie guitar music.

Music

CF Watkins Embraces a Cool, Sophisticated Twang on 'Babygirl'

CF Watkins has pulled off the unique trick of creating an album that is imbued with the warmth of the American South as well as the urban sophistication of New York.

Music

Helena Deland Suggests Imagination Is More Rewarding Than Reality on 'Something New'

Canadian singer-songwriter Helena Deland's first full-length release Someone New reveals her considerable creative talents.

Music

While the Sun Shines: An Interview with Composer Joe Wong

Joe Wong, the composer behind Netflix's Russian Doll and Master of None, articulates personal grief and grappling with artistic fulfillment into a sweeping debut album.

Music

Peter Frampton Asks "Do You Feel Like I Do?" in Rock-Solid Book on Storied Career

British rocker Peter Frampton grew up fast before reaching meteoric heights with Frampton Comes Alive! Now the 70-year-old Grammy-winning artist facing a degenerative muscle condition looks back on his life in his new memoir and this revealing interview.

Books

Bishakh Som's 'Spellbound' Is an Innovative Take on the Graphic Memoir

Bishakh's Som's graphic memoir, Spellbound, serves as a reminder that trans memoirs need not hinge on transition narratives, or at least not on the ones we are used to seeing.

Music

Gamblers' Michael McManus Discusses Religion, Addiction, and the Importance of Writing Open-Ended Songs

Seductively approachable, Gamblers' sunny sound masks the tragedy and despair that populate the band's debut album.

Books

Peter Guralnick's 'Looking to Get Lost' Is an Ode to the Pleasures of Writing About Music

Peter Guralnick's homage to writing about music, 'Looking to Get Lost', shows how good music writing gets the music into the readers' head.

Film

In Praise of the Artifice in George Cukor's 'Sylvia Scarlett'

George Cukor's gender-bending Sylvia Scarlett proposes a heroine who learns nothing from her cross-gendered ordeal.

Music

The Cure: Ranking the Albums From 13 to 1

Just about every Cure album is worth picking up, and even those ranked lowest boast worthwhile moments. Here are their albums, spanning 29 years, presented from worst to best.

Television

The 20 Best Episodes of 'Star Trek: The Original Series'

This is a timeless list of 20 thrilling Star Trek episodes that delight, excite, and entertain, all the while exploring the deepest aspects of the human condition and questioning our place in the universe.

Music

The 20 Best Tom Petty Songs

With today's release of Tom Petty's Wildflowers & All the Rest (Deluxe Edition), we're revisiting Petty's 20 best songs.

Joshua M. Miller
Music

The 11 Greatest Hits From "Greatest Hits" Compilations

It's one of the strangest pop microcosms in history: singles released exclusively from Greatest Hits compilations. We rounded 'em up and ranked 'em to find out what is truly the greatest Greatest Hit of all.

Music

When Punk Got the Funk

As punks were looking for some potential pathways out of the cul-de-sacs of their limited soundscapes, they saw in funk a way to expand the punk palette without sacrificing either their ethos or idea(l)s.

Music

20 Hits of the '80s You Might Not Have Known Are Covers

There were many hit cover versions in the '80s, some of well-known originals, and some that fans may be surprised are covers.

Music

The Reign of Kindo Discuss Why We're Truly "Better Off Together"

The Reign of Kindo's Joseph Secchiaroli delves deep into their latest single and future plans, as well as how COVID-19 has affected not only the band but America as a whole.

Books

Tommy Siegel's Comic 'I Hope This Helps' Pokes at Social Media Addiction

Jukebox the Ghost's Tommy Siegel discusses his "500 Comics in 500 Days" project, which is now a new book, I Hope This Helps.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.