‘Russian’ to Success
There’s a thin line between love and Haight. Ashbury, that is. Frisco fivesome Howlin Rain cram a whole lot of Bay Area psych, whiskey-spattered country and “Highway Star”-era Deep Purple into their fourth studio release, The Russian Wilds. Loaded with tiny details, unexpected turns and surging solos, it’s an album that deserves many listens to fully take in—a boozy, richly-adorned Fabergé egg of manly guitars and red-in-the-face bravado. It’s brash and sweaty music for sure, but nuanced and carefully put together all the same.
Lighting the fuse is “Self-made Man,” a bombastic hippy screed bent on burning the effigy of some loathsome one per center. “When you break a couple of bones,” growls Ethan Miller with false sympathy, “they call you a ruthless man.” The defiant drums mark his sneer with an explosive exclamation point. Then Ethan wryly succors the Pig’s pride: “But you dug those holes alone with two bloody hands.” If the Man had it his way, the dirty defiant guitars in this song’d be pepper-sprayed and buried under Alcatraz. No justice, no peace!
When they’re not shoring up their SF street cred though, Howlin Rain are especially good when they’re at their most adventurous. “Cherokee Werewolf” is just plain surreal, sounding like Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” as covered by The Allman Brothers. “The maggots and worms will crawl on you,” taunts our hippy wolfman with his latest captive, “from under the ground around you.” We’re treated to some pristine Kansas-style vocal harmonies, a meaty undead guitar solo, and a brood of feisty backup girls in what amounts to—if you can imagine—a tale of moonshine, fur and love.
Schmearing another coat of varnish to the album’s lustre is “Strange Thunder,” an almost twee but persevering ballad of putting one’s everliving mind off to pasture. “They say it’s a punishable crime / To try and snuff the light out on your one and only life,” the singer limps. The “sound of strange thunder,” we come to find out, was none other than a shotgun blast heard “rolling down the hall.” The Howlin frontman’s black humor puts a poetic spin on blowing your head off, and the song’s mind-blowing Skynyrd outro seems to style self-murder as downright heroic. Is there outlaw rock in heaven?
Further broadening the light and shade of Wilds, we get “Collage,” a bold stake on Crazy Horse-era Neil Young. With its horseshoe clops and echoing strings, it’s a trusty number for the cowboy trail. Still, the band’s venturesome spirit sometimes drives them in the rough. The R&B slow-burn of “Can’t Satisfy Me Now” sort of fizzles, while the end-times romance of “Phantom in the Valley” may be too weird for its own good.
All told, though, it’s hard to gibe a band for erring on the side of alacrity, and it’s that “kitchen sink” abandon that makes Russian such a wild and worthy listen.