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.