Climactic Explosion of Ego
Howlin’ Rain’s 7th studio album, Mansion Songs, marks the first output of a trilogy which frontman Ethan Miller describes as, “The journey from nothingness back to creation in musical form.” The result; however, as album lyrics perhaps more accurately state, is more a “climactic explosion of ego.” A lot of lip service in a lackluster, musical journey with no direction, both within individual tracks and across the album as a whole.
The trouble begins with the first tune on the album, “Big Red Moon,” which opens with a hoarse, slightly strangled male voice. After this solo vocal opening, the full band–bass guitar and drums–come crashing onto the scene at full volume, just one chorus into the song. Miller’s voice is completely overpowered once the band joins in, despite him switching to a higher range.
Cut to three minutes later in “Big Red Moon,” and Miller’s still railing in the same pitch register with a wall of sound behind him. Suddenly, the beginning of the tune and the middle sound the same. There is no direction and the sheer wall of sound erases the possibility of nuance. It’s exhausting. Mansion Songs is plagued by a lack of musical structure. The best music plays like a story, with a clear beginning, middle, and end–without this, music can turn into simply meaningless sound, a pitfall this album frequently falls into.
A further detriment to the structure, is the over-indulgence in the lead singer. The vocals of “Meet Me in the Wheat” starts at the upper limits of Miller’s range, with a whiny, light-weight scream tone. Often, upper notes don’t quite land on the intended pitch. Five minutes later, Miller is still nearly screaming in his higher register. He didn’t leave himself anywhere to go and as a result this tune is also going in circles and voiding any meaning to nearly indiscernible lyrics.
“Ceiling Fan” is most indicative of the self-indulgence and ego Mansion Songs perpetuates ad nauseum.
With only eight tracks to say anything, spending copious time on Miller’s bizarre sing-spoken verses and out of place full-bodied choruses, this track is out there. It starts with the lyrics, “I’m in a wetsuit” and eventually gets around to, “climactic explosion of ego,” which may be the only explanation for this tune. Howlin’ Rain did not earn 7 minutes of time to wax on about weird random musings at the end of this album.
It’s not all bad news. “Lucy Fairchild” shows that Howlin’ Rain could do a little something with structure and variety if they wanted. The piano opening leads into a decent tune with a chorus of voices added at key places. A harpsichord/guitar/piano interlude in the middle of the song before playing out to the end of the six minute track creates a welcome balance. “Wild Bush” is has catchy 1960’s vibe, and excusing the missed pitches, “Coliseum” features acoustic guitar and voice for a more morose offering.
The concept of creating a series of albums that ascend from the darkest emotional depths sounds intriguing on paper. However, Howlin’ Rain’s first installment, Mansion Songs, demonstrates little more than the bottom. A lack of structure and an overindulgence in whatever whim the band fancies leads to a misfire overall. With some bright moments and an overall decent sound, it’s just not enough to yank this album out of a creative pit.