Experiences are snapshots in time, creating connections vibrating with memories of sounds, colors, and emotions. That is, if we are passionate enough to authentically embrace each moment, immersed in its reality. Howlin Rain knows a little bit about that zen-like state of perfect improvisational freefall, inviting fans to come along for the first in a series of live records called Under the Wheels: Live From The Coasts (Volume 1).
The runtime of only five tracks is somewhat misleading at first glance, as this album often puts the listener at the show, experiencing an energy exchange between audience and musicians. With a no-holds-barred approach to this recording, founding member Ethan Miller’s label sets the stage to create a strong live record. Plucking from recordings coast to coast makes a musical journey for fans such as myself who have yet to experience a Howlin Rain show. Live records allow acts to embrace their improvisational side, and for Howlin Rain that’s a thread that runs through the essence of the band.
Kicking it off with “To The Wind” as sound echoes against the crowd is a brilliant move. Expansive, dramatic, and freeform in its expression, this is jam rock at its finest. The track brings to mind great live albums like The Allman Brothers at The Fillmore. Let the purposeful chaos begin.
From Miller’s soaring vocal delivery to the lush embrace of backing vocals, there is no doubt why “Missouri” made its way on to Volume 1. This anthem now adds the beastly shred of Miller and Dan Cervantes’ live electric guitars, and there is no mistake–this is a Howlin welcome home.
“Goodbye Ruby” rolls effectively from backline to screaming guitars. Spontaneity oozes from this well-calibrated southern rock; Jeff McElroy’s bass is particularly strong. His backline partner Justin Smith creates an intoxicating mood with his drums. It’s wicked cool and makes it easy to imagine being there.
Volume 1 fittingly and predictably closes out with downtempo ballad “Coming Down,” signaling to fans that the party’s over for this installment. This ethereal psychedelic space is artistically stellar with outstanding guitar work.
There are a few moments that show the inevitable limitations of live jam band recordings. The live energy of “Death Prayer in Heaven’s Orchard” doesn’t come across to me on this recording. Without experiencing the vibe and energy of a live show, some moments dance along the line of self-indulgent performance when recorded. And wouldn’t the release of a full live collection reflecting a true improvisational concert experience with Howlin Rain been more effective? I think so; now listeners are stuck waiting. However, the good news is that the second installment is due soon, out sometime this fall. Despite minor problems, a creative improvisational thread runs through the first installment of Howlin Rain’s Under the Wheels: Live From the Coasts. And maybe anticipation is a good thing! Waiting for more music from Howlin Rain may send people back digging into a thirteen-year discography of the band in preparation for the release of Volume 2. Volume 1 drops August 30 via Silver Current Records, offering up all the regular versions plus a trademark limited edition and deluxe/special edition vinyl. –Lisa Whealy
Steven Hyden wrote in a footnote of a 2012 article on Muse that, “in the future, there likely will be an infinite series of hyper-specific subsets with finely detailed points of demarcation between micro-genres, and music that sounds like one big nonsensical but weirdly logical mess.” Seven years later, we have lived through Justin Bieber in “Despacito,” Ed Sheeran in a reggae compilation, “Old Country Road,” and other proofs that the latter part has come true: boundaries in capital-P Pop Music are nothing more than Hyden’s suggestion of “the headgear and footwear of the performers.” But does this extend to different tiers of the popular music echelon?
Hood Smoke‘s Congratulations Mr. and Mrs. Wallace is an apt place to investigate this phenomenon. The press avoids genre names altogether in the top line and bills it as a “go-to summertime chill-out album,” which it mostly is (and even more so for people who chill out to big guitar distortion every now and then). Elsewhere genre names like jazz, soul, rock, indie post-pop, funk, and “a folky kindness” appear. None of these things are wrong at all, except you have to squint pretty hard to hear the jazz forebears. Still, they’re all angles from which you can look at Hood Smoke’s latest. They’re all facets of the diamond that reflect light.
This is a pretty folk-heavy blog, so the folky elements were what drew me to this record. This is novel because it was the indie post-pop elements that drew me in on previous releases that I have covered; Hood Smoke has eased further and further into my own personal reviewing comfort zone with its sonic progression. And because I have an expansive mindset on what can be folk-pop and how many influences you can throw in folk before it’s not folk anymore, this can be read (in my view) as a folk album with extensions and influences that wrap in all of the aforementioned genres.
Lead single “Flown” shows how this is true: there’s a groovy guitar lead line that could fit in a lot of different genres, an organ that tips this off toward alt-country, dense guitars that push this toward indie early Death Cab-style indie-pop, and soaring male vocals that are appreciated in almost any genre. But it all flows from the sort of vibe (created by the tension between a single kick drum, the cascading guitar and bass thump) that feels like a folk-pop song, a la The Head and the Heart. This is the sort of song that embodies Hyden’s “nonsensical but weirdly logical” music; “Flown” is an excellent tune that fits very clearly in a recognizable space. But what is that space? Do we care? Is it important? For the listener, probably not. It’s a great song and worth listening to. It’ll hook you for the record.
But just in case you doubt the veracity of my claim that this is a folk record, opener “Lone Lorraine” is a folk song through and through; the only influences outside folk are maybe The Eagles and trad country (weeping pedal steel). Otherwise, this is a lot of acoustic guitar strum in a five-minute mid-tempo song about a woman. Folk percentage: 100%. “Over the Ashes” is similarly acoustic-heavy, but it’s got a little bit more radio ’90s in its veins to give it a bit of a more pop feel without going overboard. The mellow “One Shot” sounds like a lost track from Coldplay somewhere between Parachutes and Rush of Blood to the Head. “At the Lighthouse” is a bit Dawes-ian in its approach, but still chill.
But then there’s the back half of the record that’s very wide-angle, squint-harder folk: “Keeps Me Around” starts off with a single beat before pummeling the listener with ’90s guitar thunder. “What’s Fair Marie” is funky/soulful/groovy in a moody R&B sort of way. Six-minute “Astraea” is a sort of deconstructed folk that mashes up with chill R&B, some unexpected guitar chord patterns, and Counting Crows vibes to create something new and interesting–it’s like The Bends but more direct. Closer “Peppered Hills” amps up the dreamy R&B aspects of their sound for maximum let’s-get-it-on factor.
None of this means that Hood Smoke’s release is derivative–the opposite, in fact. The way that they blend these influences, elements, and cultural touchstones is masterful. The result is a highly developed collection of songs that could indeed be a chill-out album (save “Keeps Me Around”–not chill) or a folk fan’s new favorite or a good album to throw in a progressive R&B Spotify playlist. The many facets of this album will speak to different people in different ways; different things will jump out at you depending on what your interest is. Yet it’s not a grab-bag potpourri of different styles; Hood Smoke charts their own specific course through the post-everything mix that is our musical culture without losing the thread. They know what they’re about, and this album reflects it; they just happen to have a lot of people who will recognize and respect the record they’ve put out. It’s a great record, and one that you should check out.
Congratulations Mr. and Mrs. Wallace releases August 23 on ears&eyes Records. The band is doing two release shows:
Rebirth can be a challenging event. Receiving new revelations from an unfamiliar creative place can be difficult territory for an artist’s fans. But sometimes rebirth can be a return to roots, as with The Disco Biscuits’ Aron Magner. His trip has returned to where his personal evolution as a keyboardist synth jam master began: on piano. With the introduction of his new band SPAGA, Magner has delivered a self-titled jazz stunner on his label AM Records.
Jason Fraticelli on upright bass and Matt Scarano handling drums fill out the trio of talent that delivers this excellent debut with Magner. Having two highly respected Philadelphia jazz musicians on the record with one of the men responsible for shifting perceptions on jam-rock fusion sets a high bar for Magner’s new work. The piano man has returned home, and SPAGA is a six-composition documentation of a new act’s birth. This record surpasses any boundaries that have been predetermined for both the genre and Magner.
The attitude is a big part of the record. The album’s Philadelphia musicians were friends and family who recorded locally. Keeping it real, flowing, and organic seemed like the way to create a largely acoustic record, detached and unplugged from all the gadgetry that had been The Disco Biscuits’ trademark sound.
“Creed” is the first single, and it helps ease in the sonic transition. Heavy synthesizer reverberations battle the graceful elegance of piano interludes in a trancelike dance held steady with a precision backline. Full immersion into the dream that is SPAGA really begins in the elegant echoes of “Marionette in the Snow,” whose nuanced emotions reverberate from each note. A marriage of musicianship has created vulnerable grace set to music, each crescendo dropping away into space. Close your eyes and get carried away on each note.
Great musical composition is lush with contrasts, and SPAGA unfolds into a circle of purposeful artistic impressionism that feels improvisational but doesn’t contradict its deliberateness. The nature of “Four Angels” could be heaven and hell, or light and dark; yet, that would be too simplistic for so complex a tune. Ethereal, haunting, and, yes, dark. Fraticelli’s bass is unbelievable on this track, and personally I look forward to seeing a live performance of this one.
Combinations of rhythmic syncopation on “Colors” create an interplay between Fraticelli’s bass and Magner’s piano, achieving transcendence. “Resurrection” is the strutter of the album, the most funky, genreless song of the record. Happily all over the place, this funky bit of cool is just that. The album closes out with “Nils Idea,” which takes the artist full circle. Softly drifting away with a solo piano composition, the idea that none of this would be happening without The Disco Biscuits drifting away cannot be missed. The truth is, for people like me, SPAGA’s self titled debut is the soundtrack for creation, despite the loss of former things.–Lisa Whealy
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.