On their overlooked self-titled debut, Australia’s Howling Bells bypassed the typical old-rock-referencing, easy-to-spot-the-Television-and-Blondie-influence that similar bands get into. Instead, they played like some strange mash-up of ‘70s country rock, new wave, classic rock like Thin Lizzy and a pinch of psychobilly. That mélange made them interesting, but also meant they’d be excluded from the throngs of bands doing classic-rock pastiche and cashing fat checks and prevented Howling Bells from getting a proper U.S. release. It isn’t even on iTunes.
In an effort to correct that injustice, the band’s sophomore effort, Radio Wars, tunes out all Howling Bells’ interesting tics to make way for a milquetoast selection of mid-tempo stadium anthems. Howling Bells fall into the same trap that kills most sorta-weird rock bands when they try to write a more popular sophomore album: Everything sounds bigger, but everything is easily more forgettable.
Radio Wars opens well enough with the snarling “Treasure Hunt,” finding lead singer Juanita Stein sloganeering like Orwell’s Big Brother. Stein has long been Howling Bells’ calling card -- her voice is distinctive and can vary emotions at the drop of a hat -- but Radio Wars finds her mostly shouting over ballads as she tries in vain to breathe life into the barely metaphorical “Cities Burning Down,” the loathsome Belle and Sebastian pastiche of “Let’s Be Kids,” the maelstrom-lacking “Into the Chaos” and the atrophied blues holler of “How Long.”
Unlike direct British contemporaries the Duke Spirit, who are working in the same era as Howling Bells but have opted for a more muscular and stripped-down approach to similar source material, Howling Bells are trying to update their sound with ‘90s studio sheen. It works occasionally -- “Golden Web” oozes like oil out of sand and “Digital Hearts” parlays its soaring chorus into the album’s biggest moment -- but mostly it leads to a featureless product that neglects the band’s distinct former character.
Howling Bells' self-titled debut album was a bluesy, mud-drenched, riff-fueled affair that garnered widespread acclaim from the British press and boasted one of 2006's most underrated singles, the pounding "Low Happening." With a U.S. distribution deal in place, the Australian quartet is finally set to release an album here in the States. Radio Wars, recorded in Los Angeles at The Sound Factory, is much different than its predecessor, as evidenced by the melody-driven, less furious feel of singles "Into The Chaos" and "Cities Burning Down." To better explain the new sound of their second album, this is what vocalist/guitarist Juanita Stein had to say: "The first record was more me in my bedroom kind of wallowing over lost love and falling in love – it was a very, very romantic and brooding process. But with this one, it’s pretty much been a unanimous process, like every member of the band has added their flavour."
|Box Elders - Alice and Friends||Generationals Con Law|