Howlin Rain, ‘The Russian Wilds’ (American)
Release Date: February 14, 2012
If music were math, if records were the sums of their parts, then the fourth album from crazy-eyed California band Howlin Rain would be one of the best psychedelic rock records ever made. The cast on The Russian Wilds is incredible. Guitarist Ethan Miller of the chaotic and very-much-missed Comets on Fire remains something of a senior statesman for strangely ecstatic American music, and his network of collaborators is broad and strong. Here, he employs, among others, guitarist Isaiah Mitchell, whose power trio Earthless once led round-trip, weed-smoke instrumental missions to the moon, and Cyrus Comiskey, bassist for stoner-metal crew Saviours.
And that’s just the band. Miller spent bits of the past five-plus years delivering, dissecting, and rebuilding these songs with none other than bearded canon-maker Rick Rubin. For the recording session itself, Rubin left Howlin Rain in good hands with producer Tim Green (Melvins, Six Organs of Admittance, Sleater-Kinney), an increasingly rare adherent of tone and warmth in an era of slipshod bedroom recordings. There are horns and harmonies, moments of silence and bursts of volume, a Latin percussion tangent and a drone-suffocation interlude. Miller’s voice has gotten better across Howlin Rain’s discography, too; on The Russian Wilds, he settles into some unimagined nexus of Joe Cocker, Joe Jackson, and Jerry Garcia.
The result: The Russian Wilds is a terrible album, another unfortunate instance in which the world’s major-label machine has failed to understand the essence of a band they’ve inked. While 2008’s excitable if disappointing Magnificent Fiend, didn’t stray too far from rock ‘n’ roll’s main roads, it still took turns. The Russian Wilds basically coasts along the interstate. Howlin Rain, once prone to warped cosmic bends and experimental influences that stretched from The Allman Brothers to Ash Ra Tempel and far beyond , now cop liberally from dozens of obvious sources — melodies from Queen and Sam Cooke, moods from Elvis Costello and Carole King, modes from the Grateful Dead and CSNY. These are sounds and references to be found on the iTunes playlists of any album-rock parent or college freshman who’s “just super into everything.” Like another of Rubin’s American Recordings acts, the Black Crowes, Howlin Rain tries to blend all these strains into one inoffensive expanse.
The band sounds tired of letting loose for little return. After all, Miller ran these tunes through the strands of Rubin’s beard for polish and wisdom for half a decade. They’ve stiffened in the interim. What’s lost on The Russian Wilds is the élan and rush that Miller and whatever band he was leading could create simply by playing, the twin senses of charisma and chaos that made 2006’s “Calling Lightning with a Scythe” one of the best moments in the entire, woebegone New Weird America era. The “jam” at the close of “Self Made Man” is stilted, while the rigid arthritis of “Cherokee Werewolf” suggests a Southern rock act playing the hit they hate for the millionth time. Howlin Rain even closes with an instrumental named “…Still Walking, Still Stone,” which seems like an invitation to lean back and roar if ever one existed. Instead, the twin-guitar firebrands scatter around a piano jaunt, trading stupid little licks and contorted guitar-wank faces like they’re Carlos Santana and John McLaughlin.
As a bandleader, Ethan Miller has been responsible for a lot of impeccable musical moments. Last year, the experimental label Three Lobed Records commemorated its first decade with a four-album box set featuring sides from some of its flagships acts and favorite bands — Sonic Youth, Sun City Girls, Wooden Wand, and Miller’s Comets on Fire, plus many others. Comets’ 21-minute contribution is actually a collage built from the band’s improvisations and rehearsals made between 2006 and 2010. Pushing from astral drift to scuzzy blues-rock, from feedback screes to jazz-like patter, “2950 3rd St.” hinges on the energy and excellence a handful of simpatico musicians locked together in a space can create. There was no real producer, no real budget and no real expectation that these sounds had to be anything other than the sum of the people making them.
Burdened with the process and problems of an antediluvian industry trying to save face, The Russian Wilds attempts to be something more than just a rock ‘n’ roll record. Instead, Miller, Green and Rubin set out to make a Massive American Rock Statement in an era when bands don’t really make those statements anymore. Instead, we get big-budget bloat, lifeless lines, and none of the warmth or reality that would cause any label to take interest in the first place.