Howlin' Rain strikes an unbalanced chord between calm and cacophony on fourth studio release.
Indie rock outlet Howlin’ Rain’s latest release -- and the first of a trilogy, according to frontman Ethan Miller -- opens with nothing more than a little over 50 seconds of his own raw, bone-stingingly haunting vocals. A melancholy affair, Miller paints a nostalgic picture reflecting the days of roots rock gone by, imperfectly crooning “I’ve got $15 in my hand / If you gotten, we’ll be kinsmen to the stars.” When he hits the first unabashedly excoriated “Big Red Moon”, the band kicks in, inflecting the opening track of the same name with a poignant swampy flavor reminiscent of a Creedence Clearwater Revival a-side. Once you think you’ve hit a comfortable groove with the song, though, Miller unexpectedly comes in with an impassioned wail, reinventing the track’s craft in its twilight moments.
This type of artistic creativity is what put the band on the map in the first place, catering to the CCR and Bon Jovi-esque sounds of rock-and-roll’s golden age, but not without inflecting their tracks with their own troubadour sensibility. Much of this has to do directly with Miller’s aforementioned perfectly imperfect vocals, striking a Dylan-like chord, if Dylan were grittier and more overanxious. He is met more than often by his fellow bandmates on the album, however, with anthem-like backing vocals on tracks like “Meet Me in the Wheat” leading their compositions down the last driving mile.
Every now and again, Howlin’ Rain likes delivering a curveball. Without deterring from their anthemic overall sound, the band plays with a grandiose amount of alternative sonic routes throughout Mansion Songs. These include, but are most certainly not limited to, an impish, upbeat keyboard reminiscent of ‘60s pop-rock on “Wild Bush”, ethereal classical influences on “Lucy Fairchild”, and bouncy and effervescent Americana leanings on the vast “The New Age”. The fiddling and sudden melding of screaming vocals paired with jingle bells present on the third mentioned is especially impressive and representative of Howlin’ Rain’s ability to innovate. They can bring a track into utter chaos, yet restrain themselves just enough to where it manages to work.
On the overall, Mansion Songs is a solid first addition to what, according to Ethan Miller, will be a three piece set of albums for he and Howlin’ Rain. On the album, the band manages to continue their impressive streak of paying homage to classic rock tendencies while still remaining fresh by their own poetic means. With Miller’s off-kilter means of delivering a vocal, and with the album’s pacing being a bit on the slow side near its end with nearly twenty minutes of low-tempo tracks topping it off, Mansion Songs isn’t for everybody. However, what it is, is an almost surprisingly durable inclusion to Howlin’ Rain’s overarching collective of available albums, given the band's tumultuous history.
It is an inventive album that ends on an ominous note with the cockeyed spoken word musings of Miller leaving a lasting, yet unsure impression. Wherever the band is taking their sound as they transcend into the next album, Mansion Songs leaves enough of a fascinating blueprint that fans of the band will wonder where they’re headed next.