There’s a warm wind blowing through the cornfield. Longspurs carve the high air as they twirl above the endless plains, and somewhere a chair creaks on a wooden porch. But on the distant horizon the bruised sky is stained with strange colours – blue and black and silver and blood red. There’s an electrical storm coming. Everyone into the cellar…
This is the world Howlin Rain inhabit. Theirs is seemingly a homespun version of America where everything is a fraction out of step with the way it should be. It’s not so much American Gothic as American Weird.
Mansion Songs, the follow-up to 2012’s The Russian Wilds, the band’s fourth album, strips away its predecessor’s magnificent soul-rock bombast in favour of something that’s simultaneously rootsier and stranger. It takes a few listens to hook in its claws, but when it does they’re fixed forever.
Actually, Mansion Songs is two albums that co-exist in the same space. One is a classic rock record in the truest sense of the term: 70s AM radio dusted down for a new era. Big Red Moon might start with an a capella intonation that’s more Allen Ginsberg than Mick Jagger, but it soon rips into an electric wig-out that pulls in a battered piano and burning mouth harp before mainman Ethan Miller’s cracked, crazed voice reaches its rapturous cresendo.
Likewise, Meet Me In The Wheat relocates the tune of Rhinstone Cowboy to a pastoral setting, before erupting in a hail of testifying Hallelujahs; The New Age is a woozy hoedown built around a violin riff that builds to a raw-throated climax; and the beautiful Lucy Fairchild is a piano ballad based on an 18th-century religious novel.
But there’s a second album in here, buried somewhere under the surface. You can hear the spirit of Miller’s earlier band, experimental mavens Comets On Fire, in the distant squalls of the otherwise straight-ahead Wild Bush. Elsewhere the inappropriately-titled Restless is so still it’s barely breathing, at least until guitars start crackling like wayward electricity.
Strangest of all is Ceiling Fan, a near-spoken-word piece which finds Miller roaming through the corridors of his mind, dropping in whispered names from art and literature as he goes. Violins saw, pianos jostle, six-strings fade in and out.
There’s much on Mansion Songs that is comfortingly familiar, but then there’s much that most definitely isn’t. In locating the space between those two places, Howlin Rain might just have stumbled upon something brilliant and unique./o:p