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Published: 2012/02/15
by Brian Robbins

Howlin Rain
The Russian Wilds

American Recordings

Of all the albums that Humble Pie recorded in their day, Eat It has to be their best. Sure, Smokin’ contained the greasy raunch of the original version of “30 Days In The Hole” and Rock On offered the midnight swagger of the multi-dimensional “Stone Cold Fever”, but Eat It simply had everything: bluesy grit (“Drugstore Cowboy”, “Good Booze And Bad Women”); powerhouse soul (“Shut Up And Don’t Interrupt Me”, “Black Coffee”); gospel-like bluesy testifying (“I Believe To My Soul”,“Is It For Love?”); acoustic sweetness (“Say No More”, “Summer Song”) and just plain sweat-soaked-and-lurching rock ‘n’ roll (the thirteen-and-a-half minute live “Up Our Sleeve”).

I bring up Eat It only because that’s the closest thing I’ve ever heard in my lifetime to the music on Howlin Rain’s latest release, The Russian Wilds. And for an album to out-Pie an almost-40-year-old classic, well – that’s quite a something. Simply put: the dark places on _The Russian Wilds _ are all the more darker; the light places are all the more lighter; and there are colors in-between on The Russian Wilds that Howlin Rain has come up with out of their very own spectrum. (And the fact that singer/guitarist frontman Ethan Miller can draw off and let fly vocally in a manner not unlike Pieman Steve Marriott just begs for a comparison, as well.)

But overall, the Humble Pie thing is more vibe than a case of the two bands actually sounding alike. Heck – one pass through The Russian Wilds will conjure up all sorts of classic rock comparisons: at about the 4:00 mark, “Phantom In The Valley” swings abruptly from fathoms-deep organ-and-guitar psych churn and soaring vocal harmonies to vintage Santanaland (with a wildly-blowing horn line that sounds like, well, Chicago at its randiest). “Strange Thunder” begins with a wander through the misty mountains of Led Zep before hitting the road about 5 minutes in with a bass/drum throb and twin guitar leads right out of the Thin Lizzy playbook. And on “Dark Side”, when everything drops away, leaving those high-end-of-the-piano-keyboard chords clanging, try to not to think of Supertramp’s “Bloody Well Right” (go ahead – try). You don’t even have to fire up the time machine for some of the musical deja vu: “Can’t Satisfy Me Now” packs all the cheap-wine-and-hallelujah glory of the Black Crowes at their best.

Overwhelmed by all these name-dropping comparisons? Well, don’t be. The point is that Howlin Rain will remind you of a lot of great tunes that are infused into your DNA – while sounding totally “Where did that come from?” fresh at the same time. Studio legend Rick Rubin and producer/engineer Tim Green obviously knew how to wrangle Miller and company (Isaiah Mitchell on guitar and vox; Joel Robinow on keys, guitar, and vox; and the fearless rhythm team of bassist Cyrus Comiskey and drummer Raj Ojha) into the studio setting without taming the life out of them. The performances on The Russian Wilds have that parallel tightrope-feel of an intimate live show where one stumble could’ve taken out the whole troupe. And this is not simple music, boys and girls: while Howlin Rain is no stranger to verse/chorus/verse/chorus/bridge/verse/chorus song structures, they’re just as apt to take you by the ear and lead you through a kaleidoscopic shapeshift of changing tempos, revolving moods, and constantly-morphing head scenery … without losing the thread of the tune. (“Epic” would not be too strong of a term to apply to some of these songs.)

And just to prove that they know the proper way to bring you back home at the end of the date, Howlin Rain concludes the album with the breezy-with-undertones-of-weirdness sway of “… Still Walking, Still Stone” – a little number that begins life as a cousin to “My Favorite Things” (all happy/smiley piano/bass/drums) before roaring off into The Land Of The Apeshit Guitar, ensuring that you’re going to want to hit the rewind button just to figure out how the hell they got to where they went.

Somebody knows what they’re doing here.

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