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.