Howlin Rain has literally been around since their 2006 debut. The Oakland, California-based band has toured the world with their west coast rock flavor. More impressive is that the band is set to drop its fifth full length album, The Alligator Bride, via Silver Current Records this June. What a long, strange trip it’s been!
It can be tough to have comparisons tossed about to iconic bands like The Grateful Dead, getting hippie culture vibrating with expectations. Especially after the band had worked with famous producers that carried with it major labels.
Ethan Miller claims the role of lead howler and guitarist. Taking on the world in true DIY spirit, Miller makes Silver Current Records an artist-owned and artist-run endeavor. With their future in their own hands, this bunch of mischief makers is focused on some serious music making business, as The Alligator Bride can attest.
Joining Ethan Miller on guitar is Daniel Cervantes. Two guitars make for a wicked rich mix of sound. Jeff McElroy on bass and Justin Smith on drums create a foundation for this rock trip to happen. The seven songs of this album feature an authentic connection to a swampy groove–Mountain comes to mind, best known for their performance from 1969’s Woodstock.
From the opening of “Rainbow Trout,” one thing is apparent: listeners are on a road trip to parts unknown, and happily so. This track is magic: striking vocals and great guitar work with riff layered on riff. It’s a celebration of life in song, this kind of rock has been left to the Phish fans and Dead heads since 1969. Howlin Rain picks up that vibe, and this track is like the best of what started in 1967 at Monterey Pop.
“Missouri” follows with an easy feel, a down-home, road-trippin, blasting-out-of-the-radio-of-a-Volkswagen-bus song. Listeners can almost feel the wind in their faces. It’s a summer day in a song; there is no doubt why this was the first video to drop from the record. Musically, this is a masterclass in joyful noise: exceptional guitar work embraces Miller’s vocals with riffs all over.
The band follows that up with a contrast. “Speed” is a soft-spoken acoustic guitar with an easy, soothing voice. But “Speed” is also a story of contrasts: being high can take effort, as anyone that has ever had too much of anything will relate. This is songwriting brilliance. Following up with a track like “The Wild Boys” is a bit of sequencing genius. A song reminiscent of Grateful Dead, this is softly executed. Of all the songs so far this has the most Dead vibes; enough essence of what is past, but enough of what is Howlin Rain this is elevated beyond what may have helped create the music. Long jams and stellar drum work make this a stand out. However, it is apparent why “ Alligator Bride” is the title track. Lush harmonies tell the tale of simpler times that have moved on, good old days gone, never to return. Catch hold of your breath–this is a stunner that wraps in a squeal of guitars.
Miller greets listeners with crystal clear vocals on “In The Evening,” authentic and full of emotion. It is easy to be transported on this journey, simple and uncluttered musically. Three guitars and yet there is restraint–damn. Impressive. Easing out of the record with the final track, “Coming Down” is perfect. Anthemic yet subtle, with a festival-at-sunset feel, the road tripping is over with Howlin Rain and The Alligator Bride. Its beautiful crescendo of soaring guitars spiraling out with the vocal strength of Ethan Miller, say goodbye. Those guitar riffs that will keep fans smiling long after the music fades. Keep up with their tour dates at their website. –Lisa Whealy
1. “Muanapoto” – Tshegue. Dense, groove-heavy African rhythms power this unclassifiable tune, which falls somewhere between LCD Soundsystem electro, Afropunk, and The Very Best. May I repeat: those grooves. You’ll get moving on this one.
2. “Like the Night” – Moonbeau. This electro-pop jam played for roughly three seconds before I thought, “Oh yes. Ohhhhhhh yeahhhhhhhhhhhh.” The airy arpeggiator lead hook is awesome, the verses are perfectly done to build tension, and the chorus brings that hook back in excellently. The vocals nail it, too. If you love JR JR, Hot Chip, and the like, you’ll be absolutely all over this track.
3. “Happy Unhappy” – The Beths. The Beths are jumping in with Alex Lahey and Marsicans as purveyors of incredible, indelible guitar-pop in big batches. This second single I’ve heard from then is just everything I’m looking for in power-pop: thick guitars that yet don’t cover up the vocals, blast-off drums, big low end, and giddy enthusiasm. The fact that the giddy enthusiasm (check the “oh-ah” section) is deployed in a lyrical set complaining about being happy (ha!) is just rollicking fun.
4. “Forever” – The Gray Havens. TGH has moved from piano pop through expansive folk-pop to full-on indie-pop in this latest track. This jubilant track grows from a peaceful opening to include enthusiastic horns, a soaring vocal line, and punchy percussion. Fans of Graceland will hear some resonances there. It’s a blast.
5. “When I Look Back” – Lev Snowe. This track has some psych guitar touches toward the end, but for the majority of the piece it’s a hazy, dreamy, friendly indie-pop effort. Snowe’s fusion of fuzzed out bass (or guitar masquerading as bass), glittery synths, and even-keeled vocals creates a fun but not unserious atmosphere.
6. “I’m the Wolves” – St. Jude the Obscure. Turns a Band of Horses-esque dusky rumination into a full-on dance party–it’s sort of like when The Arcade Fire busts out “Sprawl II” in the middle of The Suburbs. It’s thoughtful, but also got a lot of kinetic energy going on.
7. “Setting In” – Ditches. Starts off with layers of squalling feedback, but quickly abandons this intro for a loping, scuffling, laidback indie-pop song. Fans of formal songwriting, Cut Worms, Grandaddy, The Shins, and more will love this delicate, melancholy, lovely tune.
8. “Ask Me Now” – Wes Allen. I love melodic percussion–xylophones, marimbas, and vibraphones create such a warm, enveloping mood for songs. Allen includes some melodic percussion in his reflective, somber pop song that calls up elements of Jackson Browne, Paul Simon, and other peaceful singer-songwriters of the era. It’s a rumination on a breakup, like so many others, but Allen’s well-turned vocal performance sells it.
9. “Our Conversation on July 7th” – God Bless Relative. World-weary folk-pop that yet retains a sweetness in the arrangement. The electronic drums give this a unique vibe before opening up into a full-band jam (including some of the best handclaps ever used in the service of sadness). One of those tunes that feels like it’s always been around and you’re just hearing it again–it’s that mature and well-developed.
10. “Tiananmen Square” – Cameron Blake. The ever-excellent Cameron Blake’s video for his moving tune “Tiananmen Square” is powerful. The clip shows a lot of historical footage of China ostensibly surrounding the 1989 student protests held in the titular location. The most intriguing part of the video is that, while I’ve seen the iconic tank man picture, I’d never seen video of the ensuing moments: tank man keeps moving in front of the tank, then climbs up on the tank (!!) and attempts to talk to people inside the the tank (!!!) before getting down off the tank and resuming his protest. It adds even more gravitas to an already incredible moment. Blake’s huge crescendoes only help with this feeling.
I have been piled under by work recently, so I’m making a good faith effort over the next few days to get out from under a ton of great singles. I’ll be posting singles in roughly the order they were sent to me, which means that these posts will be more eccentric than I like them to be–this one goes from instrumental post-metal to acoustic singer/songwriter back-to-back. Whoops. Enjoy the tunes, regardless.
1. “Ruthless” – Terra Lightfoot. Sounds like a mashup of the vocals of the Alabama Shakes and the Southern-infused alt-country of Jason Isbell. That is high praise, y’all.
2. “Get On Board” – Pirra. This is a pop song that just would not leave my head. The tune sneaks up on you, with a subtle arrangement leading into a big, lovely chorus. There are shades of San Fran indie-pop, ’50s pop, and contemporary folk-pop throughout.
3. “The American Dream” – Crooked Teeth. The reconsideration of the American dream continues, this time in an invigorating, punchy post-LCD Soundsystem soundscape. The tension between the distorted guitar and the frantic arpeggiator is the greatest part of this song–there’s tons of space to mine there, more than LCD can take. The melodic vocal line sets Crooked Teeth apart from their forebears as well.
4. “There Is a Ledger” – Wild Pink. John Ross traded in his solo synth-pop project Challenger for art-punks Wild Pink, but this track circles back to his synth-pop beginnings. “There Is a Ledger” is a stroll through the park, with chirpy, charming bits dancing over a low-slung chassis of a song. Ross’s boyish, floaty vocals finish creating the happy mood.
5. “Cómo Me Quieres” – Khruangbin. Khruangbin is creating some of the most interesting non-neo-classical instrumental music in the world right now. And I say world because that is the scope of their music–they throw in Middle Eastern vibes, some funky aspects, vaguely surf-y moments, and a solid grounding in indie rock to create their unique, fascinating stew. Wild stuff.
6. “G.O.A.T.” – Polyphia. What if you could perform dubstep live with real instruments? What if you could mash it up with a math-rock-influenced metal band? What if you could throw some prog drumming in there for kicks? Well, if you’re somehow that inventive, you’d be Polyphia. Just wow.
7. “Crooked Lines” – Lost Like Alice. A soft, unassuming tune that sidles on in, catches your attention, and never lets it go. Ben Parker’s voice is confident but vulnerable; his low range plays like a higher Alexi Murdoch, while his higher register is more along the lines of Passenger’s dramatic performances. The guitar slots in to the mix beautifully. Solid all around.
8. “Life Comes at You Fast” – Jacob Furr. Furr’s been honing his country/folk for a long time now, and he’s earned a hard-won gravitas to his songwriting. He controls space in his vocal lines and guitar lines expertly, allowing the song to have breathing room. His vocal performance is smooth and strong.
9. “Bored in College” – James Quick. I’m not really into white-dude soul, but this tune got me. The vocal performance is carefully done, the low-key groove is impressive, the arrangement is tidy, and the overall vibe is strong. The crowdsourced video only makes it more fun.
10. “Us” – Jamison Isaak. Isaak’s EP2 has songs more atmospheric and more enthusiastic than his first outing. This is one of the latter, as a humble piano chord progression becomes the base for burbling synths, rattling lead treble lines, and other ostinato key patterns. It’s an upbeat, sun-dappled piece that takes minimalism as a starting point to build something beautiful.
Tiphanie Doucet‘s “Under My Sun” is a warm, peaceful track that draws its easygoing vibes from a simple, sturdy arrangement. This track falls somewhere between indie-pop and folk: it has the acoustic instruments and acoustic-guitar focus of a folk tune, but the swaying vibe and vocal melodies point toward indie-pop.
Either way you want to slice it, it’s the careful, uncomplicated arrangement that sells this track: a simple guitar pattern is supported by deep stringed bass, restrained drumming, and sun-dappled piano keys. The pieces come together into a track that is both confident and relaxed–there’s nothing slackery about this track, but you can definitely bob your head to it. It’s much more of a pastoral track than an urban one; this is made for big fields instead of skyscrapers.
Doucet’s hushed invitation to come and be comforted only adds to the feeling of comfort and peace. Her vocal performance is compelling in its attention to detail–the ends of lines and the wordless sighs that close the song contain a lot of emotion without going for the big move. If you’re looking for a relaxing summer tune, this is what you’re looking for. Highly recommended.
“Under My Sun” is the title track of Doucet’s upcoming album, which was produced by Simone Felice and David Baron. Under My Sun will be released August 3. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. If you’re on the New York/New Jersey area, you can catch Doucet live before the record drops:
June 21st Fox and Crow, Jersey City , NJ 8pm
July 2nd Rockwood Music Hall Stage 3, NY 8pm (Tickets)
Stephen Carradini and Lisa Whealy write reviews of instrumental, folk, and singer/songwriter music. We write about those trying to make the next step in their careers and established artists.