Howlin’ Rain – Magnificent Fiend (American Recordings)
Keith Boyd 3.27.8
Once upon in Rock music there was room for the mythic beast known as a hybrid. Bands would splice moments of soul, gospel, funk or what have you into their bag and come up with heart warming melodies that could be stretched out into endless space live but still find room on the Top 40. This paradigm extended to live shows. During the late 60’s through the mid 70’s concerts would celebrate diversity with lineups that could include Miles Davis and The Grateful Dead, Papa John Creech and The Jefferson Airplane. This willingness to blend and bend beyond the rock/pop narcotic was the magick of the times and helped produce the early genius of such acts as Moby Grape, Procol Harum, Elton John and The Band. While being critically celebrated to a certain extent during this period, most of these artists either found limited commercial success (a one hit wonder scenario) or only did so after changing significantly. While the long term money and fame might have eluded some of these acts their output has come around again to show its wide and powerful influence. What to call this sound? It’s definitely springing from the Rock idiom. It’s a mish-mash of something born under the California sunshine but also homegrown in the super Blues groups from England (Terry Riley, John Mayal and Fleetwood Mac (early)). From under that base however we end up with gospel choruses, trembling washes of Hammond B-3 Soul and over the top dynamics that ebb and flow with each piece. This sound has now risen again in the wonderfully capable hands of Howlin’ Rain on their super new disc, “Magnificent Fiend”.
Made up of members from Comets on Fire and Sunburned Hand of The Man, Howlin’ Rain started as so many great bands do, as a side project. It was a place where COF’s folks could let the noise go away a bit and replace it with song structure and melody. Their 1st album was a soft focus, good times blend that pleased the ear without any overt challenges. This time out the musical palette has been expanded and included horns and a heavier dose of keyboard/organ. The result is a wonderfully deep listen filled with rich song writing and the most heartfelt playing since The Band’s, “Last Waltz”. The overall effect of each song is a building steeplechase of dynamics but no matter how high these cathedrals get they are always punctuated by beautiful bridges that bring to mind the very best of the Summer of Love sound. The recently issued box set “Love is the Song We Sing” on Rhino gives you the blueprint. The sound however isn’t retro. It’s transcendent. I find myself swept on waves of joy as these soaring choruses pulse and swim. Howlin’ Rain has grown and matured in the space of one album more than most bands do in a lifetime. They’ve thrown their hats in with the timeless structures of quality and pulled from those archives a delightfully modern and hopeful record. While others are content to wallow in the mire of a world we have created HR are boldly declaring a new paradigm. It’s on their album cover as well. A psychedelic, Arik Roper moth emerges from its pupae and a quote floats behind it; “Live well Friends. Take with you as much love and laughter as can be carried in your days” That statement goes a long way towards giving us all an ideal to aim towards. Go out and buy this one folks. You’ll be so glad you did. I’ll leave you with two small bits. One to illustrate the poetry at work here and the other a song by song analysis by Ethan Miller from their website.
“Tailwind carry the birds to the coast to watch the clouds roll along. Pollen and pitch whisper the scripture of kings in a tongue only spoken by ghosts”
Mirroring the album’s running order, here’s Miller’s track-by-track take on the album:
“Requiem” – That’s a reformation of the chord progression to the revved-up rock intro to next song. Joel had an acoustic guitar that accidentally wound up with a broken neck; he was so devastated he went back into the studio and overdubbed that sorrowful horn solo.
“Dancers At The End Of Time” – Some of the imagery and the narrative tone are an homage to sci-fi writer Michael Moorcock’s books that center on his Jherek Carnelian character. People gleefully sliding toward Armageddon with a bowtie on top of their heads.
“Calling Lightning Pt. 2” – I’ve always liked the idea of taking the essential quality of a song like ‘Calling Lightning With A Scythe’ – which we did on our first album -- and making something different out of it. Which itself relates to the thematic concept of becoming distanced from your youth.
“Lord Have Mercy” – A tribute to different kinds of Faustian characters at different stages of their making devilish deals.
“Nomads” – That’s a song about trying to write songs, as seen through the perspective of a musician’s life on the road.
“El Rey” – A modern pulp story like something Jim Thompson or James M. Cain might’ve written. How someone could become embroiled in something they’ll never shake, like Abu Ghraib, and drift into the criminal world. “
“Goodbye Ruby” – An allegorical tale about the road not taken. Told from point of view of someone who’s still in love with the companion in crime who betrayed him.
“Riverboat” – Another pulp crime story about people on edge, trying to hold on while riding the rivers.