REVIEW album Old Subbacultcha Old Subbacultcha
Howling Bells return from the (not so literal) desert with perhaps their most assured and interesting album to date
Howling Bells (OUT NOW via Caroline International P&D)Howling Bells are one of those bands who really
should have 'made it' in any logical universe. But this is a just universe where One Direction are stacking shelves at Tesco and Will.I.Am is found alone in his one-bedroom flat, hanging from a shower rail with his pants around his ankles and his own voice looped on repeat, blaring from his Beats headphones. This is a universe that cannot and will not exist, because life just isn't quite fair. OK I might have got ahead of myself there, but the fact remains that a band on their 4
th album, who have not only a back catalogue lesser, more celebrated bands would kill for, but a front-woman possessed of an almost supernatural charm really
should be making waves by now. Let's hope 'Heartstrings' can tug liberally on a few hundred thousand of the same and give Howling Bells the acclamation they have deserved for so long. Howling Bells are an Australian 4-piece who deal in subtly psychedelic pop-rock, which is underlined by the sultry tones of one Juanita Stein; the band's front-woman and (not so) secret weapon. Heartstrings is not only their 4
th album, but quite comfortably their best album since that acclaimed but overlooked debut. Whilst their sophomore 'Radio Wars' felt like something of a compromise between their ingrained otherworldliness and the whims of the mainstream, and it's follow-up 'The Loudest Engine' had so little personality that it failed to reignite the spark. Heartstrings brings us full-circle. That's not to say it's merely a retread though. The opening 'Paris' sets up the record with confidence over a subtle riff that almost sounds like a play on 'Shine on you Crazy Diamond' given a shoe-gaze makeover before Stein's vocals melt into the mix. There's nothing revolutionary here, in fact, a line can be drawn all the way back to Fleetwood Mac through The Jesus and Mary Chain, the alt-rock of Cocteau Twins and Ride, and even the brit-pop explosion of the mid-nineties, it's so much more than the sum of its parts though. The “Don't you take me home” chorus is a delightfully immediate hook and the hazy production sounds glorious through a decent pair of headphones; just the right amount of grit. The same could be said of the album as a whole; it's almost certainly a pop record, but there's just enough darkness, distortion and distress to keep it from growing dull. That being said, given it's brevity, you'd be hard pressed to find anyone who could be bored by Heartstrings. It's a record from another time, clocking in at just over half an hour with no song reaching past 4 minutes, it's been created to be put on repeat. The sub-2 minute grunge blast of 'Possessed' fades into the gorgeous 'Your Love' (think 'Just Like Honey' with added sex), which then fades back into 'Slowburn', a 2-chord song that could be accused of being a little
too simple, but gets by on pure atmosphere. The band are not adverse to the odd ballad either, of course, and here they offer up two of their very best in the sparse, devastating piano-led 'Paper Heart' (a baroque treat) and 'Euphoria', a song that gives a modern sheen to a song Roy Orbison would have been proud to call his own. It's like the Beautiful South dipped in tar and it's just bloody wonderful. The closing title track, meanwhile blends the melancholy of both Paper Heart and Euphoria with a more menacing undertow that owes a lot to latter-day Radiohead. The best cut on the album however is (for my money) the balls-to-the-wall 'Original Sin', a song that recalls the band's former touring mates; The Joy Formidable in it's sheer bluster. Heartstrings isn't just the best Howling Bells album in almost a decade, after a few more spins it might even end up topping that glorious debut album in my estimations. I'm off to see them tonight, so let's see how the new ones fare live. Expect my report on the morrow!