The term “howlin’ rain” is a pretty intense one, no? The words evoke imagery of immutable nature, personified and forlorn, while the truncated howlin’ is bursting with Southern-fried soul. Not to mention Howlin’ Wind was the name of the debut album by Graham Parker and The Rumour in 1976, setting the bar considerably aloft for anyone foolhardy enough to associate themselves with the idea of weather vocalizing its mournfulness.
The band Howlin’ Rain, out of Oakland, California, have seen the challenge laid before them and accepted with a quiet, self-assured grace. Not only do they live up to the expectations of their moniker, but they bring an updated and unforeseen rock sensibility to it. Thing is, this album’s kind of a testament to the ability of one person to realize their dream. Ethan Miller, the brainchild of the group, had it in mind to create something groovy and organic with fellow members of the New Weird America, and do that he did. Recruiting other technical-but-heartfelt players from the California scene, he succeeded in constructing a band that is by turns mellow and punchy, but never contrived and always inspiring.
On their second album, Magnificent Fiend, the Howlers are found unearthing the roots of classic folk and jam rock while casting a modern passion on the execution of their trenchant melodies. There are Hammond organs, people! And they’re not merely present as a background player, but they are rocking with an energy typically reserved for the guitar. We’re talking elements of gospel having a romp in the sack with psychedelia. Groovy beats with their legs wrapped around gut-wrenching folk, if ever there was such a thing.
Magnificent Fiend opens with a dreamy horns-and-piano intro, then jumps in full-force with “Dancers at the End of Time,” a track that’s by turns rife with unbridled energy and melodically refined. If you don’t find yourself tapping your toes to this one, check the heart monitor — you’re flat-lining. Miller makes good on the band’s name, howling and demanding his raw-throated entreaties be heard — the in-your-face dynamism of this song easily make it the album’s best standalone track, though that by no means indicates that the rest don’t measure up.
“Calling Lightning Pt. 2” is a tad mellower than its predecessor, but just as adept at grabbing the listener by their britches and making them pay attention; “El Rey” showcases the band’s ability to make even a slow jam punch and thrive with the combined talents of its creators.
Most impressive, though, is how well-orchestrated the instruments all are; this is the kind of album that takes the listener on a slightly different sonic journey each time, depending on what element they choose to focus on. This is not simple music by any means, and it’s a testament to the musicians’ willingness to employ the “less is more” rule that the instruments don’t end up stepping all over each other. The parts are adeptly woven through each other, leaving plenty of space for each to breathe- and for the listener to hear and enjoy a new, distinct part each time they hit play.
These boys may be out of Oakland, but with lyrics like "Who will resurrect us? Jive, ass and teeth, once we’ve all drunk all our fill of fire," they’ve got enough groove and honest-to-god gumption to knock all the teenybopping California bands off the map. If this is the future of rock in the Golden State, let Los Angeles slide into the sea — but for chrissakes, save the Bay Area.