The Russian Wilds
, March 20th, 2012 11:01
It is too easy to call Howlin' Rain throwbacks, revivalists and derivative. That sort of reductive thinking has followed frontman Ethan Miller for years, right from his time in the more psychedelic and abrasive Comets On Fire, without really penetrating the substance behind the style. Miller's lyrics, melodramatic vocals and guitar playing deserve more than mere dismissal as pandering to the 60s. On The Russian Wilds, those layers are more ambitious than ever, and by the sound of it, worked out with earnest deliberation by the hand of a perfectionist.
That said, no listener to Howlin' Rain's new album will be able to identify many influences beyond those from 1965-1975. They even cover a song by James Gang (one of Joe Walsh's pre-Eagles bands) with 'Collage', actually among the album's finest moments. But The Russian Wilds offers a passionate spirit unique to Miller that other bands whose cue comes from those formative years of rock cannot muster.
It has been an interminable four years since Howlin' Rain's previous record, Magnificent Fiend, a period during which the only hint of new material was the superb EP, Good Life, in 2010. The reason for this semi-hiatus seems to lie with Rick Rubin, employed by Miller to guide him and his ever-changing cast of bandmates for the new LP. While the album doesn't appear to have any particularly significant Rubin sonic imprints, his advice was apparently to tour the new songs exhaustively, playing them live in order to source the energy and body for them before entering the studio.
While this lengthy process might have delayed The Russian Wilds' release, it has given the songs an improved tightness, thanks to them being allowed to evolve and change before committing to definitive versions on tape. While the overall sound remains characterised by those signature Southern-style jams (or on 'Self Made Man', lengthy and loud instrumentals seemingly directly inspired by Crosby, Stills and Nash's early live wig-outs), this is a marked step forward in Miller's songwriting.
The best examples of this are 'Strange Thunder' and 'Walking Through Stone', where softness and soulful rock and roll combine beautifully. The cutting riffs are still there on 'Can't Satisfy Me Now' and 'Self Made Man', but Miller has emerged as something of a balladeer on several tracks here, with the wordiness of Todd Rundgren and the sincerity and imagery of Jackson Browne.
Despite the effects-laden guitars, organs and rhythms that switch brazenly between 'When The Levee Breaks'-style heaviness and bossa nova, the foremost feature of any Howlin' Rain release must be Miller's voice. His current band allowed him to become an actual singer after the hardly melodious Comets On Fire, and it has been fascinating to watch his development. On Magnificent Fiend there was a shimmering soulfulness somewhere between Steve Winwood and Joe Cocker. Here he has added, say, Angus Young to the mix on screamier moments. He seems to possess about three vocal guises, often scrambling them up together within one song. It has long been known that Howlin' Rain, and Miller's vocals in particular, are formidable live; that the elasticity of his singing has translated to record so superbly is again proof that the Rubin approach has paid dividends.
Miller and Rubin certainly haven't pulled off a masterpiece, however. Some, for instance, will mourn the loss of Magnificent Fiend's rawness while at just over an hour, The Russian Wilds is too long. A few instrumental passages could have been reined in, while the misguided inclusion of the irritating 'Dark Side' is an unfortunate blight on what is, overall, a cascading and rewarding listen. If nothing else, this album ensures that it is for Howlin' Rain, not Comets On Fire, that Miller will ultimately be remembered.