The Russian Wilds
I’ve never been to Oakland, and I’m not exceptionally familiar with the music scene there, but I don’t think that I’m going out on a limb when I say that Howlin Rain, with all its surly Lynyrd Skynyrd harnessed bravado, would seem more logically to have begun in a garage in Tennessee or wherever the words “night life” means a poorly lit bar where dick-swinging rawk & roll swagger is chased with shots of brown stuff. To call them a “classic rock” band seems a misnomer seeing as how the band’s first album came out in 2006, but despite the band’s youth, the style that Howlin Rain has gleaned from its arena-filling progenitors is obvious from the first minute of the first song on The Russian Wilds, their latest.
Musical elements of The Greatful Dead, Springsteen, and Led Zeppelin, among others, concocted with lead guitarist Ethan Miller’s voice — a multidimensional howl (pun not intended) often reminiscent of 1990s Chris Cornell — make for something that every live-music-friendly bar in the country was made for. If the term “classic rock” is unsuitable, perhaps “easily influenced” works better. This is the shortcoming of Howlin Rain and numerous other psych-rock five-pieces that will play a song for eight minutes or more at a time just because they can: they seem almost obstinately unwilling to deviate from a formula that was tried-and-true 40 years ago (i.e. rock out with your cock out). The result is a lack of an adventurous ideal that glares through all the noise conjured by shouted lyrics and squalling guitar solos to make the reality of something that sounds grandiose in your ears fall flat in your mind.
I can’t tell you how many journalists have articulated criticisms about a good creative idea that was executed poorly, but The Russian Wilds is the opposite. They play songs that you’ll swear you’ve heard before, which is boring, but their musicianship sounds remarkably on-point. This is probably due in part to production of American Recordings’ Rick Rubin, who has helped everyone from Johnny Cash to Metallica become names that I’m able to casually reference in a review and feel confident that you’ll recognize. Upon my first listening of The Russian Wilds, I was admittedly impressed. Every instrument sounds crisp — the result of meticulous crafting and dedication from everyone involved. But my fervor over Howlin Rain’s concussive brashness and skilled musicianship diminished after the second time I listened to it. The music never really took me anywhere because it had become obvious that it had nowhere to go. The problem is namely a lack of creative ambition. Eventually my brain glazed over and the songs started to run together like a record from a foregone era, the needle caught on a scratch in the vinyl, doomed to play a tired sound over and over.
If Howlin Rain come to your local pub, go see them. Encourage your friends to attend with you, baiting them with the promise that these guys are good and that you’ll probably have a fun time. It’ll be the truth. But when everyone goes home having not bought any merchandise and never hears of the band again, resigned to the idea that the experience will ultimately be lost somewhere in the annals of Friday nights past, you’ll understand why I don’t really care if I ever hear another Howlin Rain album.
Howlin Rain: www.howlinrain.com