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Howlin Rain - The Russian Wilds

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Artist: Howlin Rain

Album: The Russian Wilds

Label: American

Review date: Feb. 13, 2012

The guitar solo is alive and well on Ethan Miller’s third album as Howlin’ Rain, a virtual reference book on classic rock styles of the 1970s, from Black Sabbath to Jimi Hendrix to Santana to Deep Purple and well beyond. If you hanker after the days when bands flew around in their own private jets, trailed by groupies and hangers on and A&R guys on the make, then The Russian Wilds is your kind of album. Beautifully played, immaculately recorded and bloated to the gills with 1970s album rock pretensions, it’s a throwback to a time that most people don’t remember very well (and few of those have any desire to revisit).

Let’s start with the length of the album, a reasonable sounding 62 minutes that turns into an endurance test on the speakers. What makes it such a drag? Well, start with the fact that the first two tracks, the eight-minute “Self Made Man” and seven-minute “Phantom in the Valley,” are comprised of multiple prog-opera-type movements. I wouldn’t mind a whole song’s worth of the Santana-esqueslink embedded in “Phantom in the Valley,” maybe two minutes total, but tacked on to the song’s am-I-epic-now posturing, it’s too much.

“Strange Thunder,” at the midway point, is the worst offender in this regard, nine minutes total, its languid blue-eyed soul intro meandering on through a first-person account of suicide (“I left you a Rohrschach on the wall”) for four and a half minutes. At this point, halfway through, the guy’s dead, his brains are on the wall, his girlfriend’s got a big mess to clean up, you’d think, hmmm, fade out? But no, we’re just getting started here. It is time for the rockingness to kick in. And so we have an extended interval of pulsing bass, of warm, mid-range guitar chords from the Queen songbook, and an endless vamp about the “strange thunder” rolling through someone’s head.

There’s also a problem with the lyrics, which are overdramatic to a degree not seen since Rush and mostly nonsensical. Miller delivers these inscrutable lines in an overdriven, commercially glossed blues-rock style that evokes David Clayton-Thomas of Blood Sweat and Tears, i.e, every word either a shattering climax or a stage whisper. In short, the whole thing is so bombastic and self-absorbed and unnecessarily blustery that it could have been dug up from a time capsuled, whole-album-side midnight FM broadcast from, say, 1975. That’s before Springsteen, claimed here as an influence, started roughing the formula up, with his cracked, everyman voice, his rowdy, close-to-live production, his antithesis of hi-fi sterility. Early on, Springsteen was kind of a troublemaker, but Howlin’ Rain only channels the Superbowl-ready, fake blues side of the man.

With Comets on Fire, Miller mined a similarly retro vibe, though with a ferocity and inventiveness that Howlin’ Rain sorely lacks. Comets on Fire viewed the 1960s through a roiling, Echoplex’d thunderhead. Howlin’ Rain delivers the 1970s with the spotless, surgically precise manner of Steely Dan. It’s no wonder that mainstream, big label guys like Rick Rubin (who runs American Recordings and produced The Russian Wilds) have flipped for Howlin’ Rain. It sounds exactly like the stuff that used to work, back when the music industry worked at all.

By Jennifer Kelly

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