By Ben Allen
We last heard from Howlin’ Rain on 2012’s sprawling The Russian Wilds. It was an album written, arranged, and meticulously recorded over five years and executive-produced by industry icon Rick Rubin. While it lacked the copious amounts of cocaine and relationship turmoil, the record was equivalent to Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours in its scope and ambition. Most songs stretched over the five-minute mark and wove together the finest elements found in classic rock.
It seems fitting, then, that Mansion Songs is so desolate and sparse. Recorded in a San Francisco basement “far from the concerns of album sales and marketing,” we find sole permanent member Ethan Miller alone with nothing but his raw talent and knack for song craftsmanship.
The record feels slightly disjointed at times, split evenly between more raucous, rambling rock and ballads such as “Restless” that crawl painstakingly slowly. One of the more engaging quiet numbers is “Coliseum,” with its lightly-plucked acoustic guitar bolstered by a gorgeous male/female vocal on the chorus. Album opener and first single “Big Red Moon” feels like an ode to glorious debauchery, with a slide guitar shredding not unlike something out of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s catalog.
Accompanied by repetitive violin, “The New Age” is an ode to pulling yourself out of a dark place and feeling reborn. Miller yelps the line “I awoke” repetitively with increasing passion and intensity as the songs nears its conclusion. The album closing epic “Ceiling Fan” begins with gently strummed chords, accompanied by Miller’s softly spoken stream-of-consciousness lyrical approach. The track gradually builds and layers instrumentation with lyrics focused on the false hope offered by the California Dream.
In many ways, Mansion Songs feels like a transformation and rebirth for Miller and the Howlin’ Rain project. While it’s such a vast departure from The Russian Wilds and 2008’s Magnificent Fiend, it feels like the next logical step in a constantly-evolving career.
It’s the first in a trilogy of albums charting “the journey from nothingness back to creation in musical form,” according to Miller. It will be interesting to see how this new age unravels. – (7/10)
In addition to being a long-time NadaMucho.com contributor, Ben Allen is the music editor for Northern California magazine Savage Henry.