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Howlin Rain - Magnificent Fiend

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Artist: Howlin Rain

Album: Magnificent Fiend

Label: American

Review date: Mar. 4, 2008

When Ethan Miller and Comets on Fire would fire up the amps, fuzztone ripped through every riff. Magnificent Fiend, the second album from his side project-cum-Rick Rubin ‘discovery’ Howlin Rain, kicks off with some crunch, too. Distortion wrestles with rock organ through the first few measures.

Then someone stomps the switch. The guitar goes … clean. And there it stays.

Crisp leads meander around electric piano and organ. Even when guitars gang up for the codas (and these six-minute jams have plenty), it grooves more than it rocks. The songs abound with hangmen, wild horses and lawdy mamas. If this sounds like Miller has moved into Grateful Dead and Allman Bros. territory, well… that's one way to put it. Anyone who's coming up with lyrics like "Miss Amelia Underwood / Carry my heart in your hands" and "Old Mr. Centipede / Climbing tobacco leaves" may well be holding Robert Hunter captive, slipping contraband under the door in exchange for imagery.

Magnificent Fiend is focused, though. Whenever a passage seems like it's going to devolve into jamming, a new refrain breaks out. And those refrains, while brain-fried, are big, soulful and pleasing – less Californian, more like the work of British R&B guys who came to acid rock from Carnaby Street. The songs are long, but concise. As "Lord Have Mercy" journeys through its half-dozen movements, it stalls in a jazz-fusion gutter for a bit, the same sort of pause that makes the tie-dye epic "Low Spark of the High Heel Boys" hold up as great pop.

Guitars aren’t the only thing this rain has cleansed. If awkward vox are one of the few remaining commonalities among indie bands, then this is not an indie record. Miller's voice has steadily gained power over his career, but his work on Magnificent Fiend is a leap forward. His tone is spot-on during the tranquil parts, scratchy and controlled when he's belting.

It's easy to hear why Rubin swooped in to release this. Columbia’s guru has been trying to unearth this sort of choogle for years, mostly coming up with sub-par blues rock that looked and sounded the part, but couldn't really deliver in the songwriting department. He’s finally found his southern comfort.

By Ben Donnelly

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