Strange times, I guess, when the third Howlin Rain album appears to have been delayed to some degree by the small business of Adele. But then, the fact that Ethan Miller’s band have fallen under the enigmatic and somewhat digressive tutelage of Rick Rubin means that, commercially speaking, there are more pressing matters than the construction of the dream 1970 throwback rock record.
That, though, is what “The Russian Wilds” shoots for, and mostly succeeds at pulling off. Rubin doesn’t appear to have produced the album (that role remains with the excellent Tim Green). But it’s clear that someone from a more orthodox, mainstream background has worked hard at disciplining some of Miller’s waywardness. While his songs still sprawl in odd ways, stretching out way past radio-friendly parameters, they do seem fractionally more crafted, less lumbering and ungainly. And the larynx-shredding excesses of his vocals have been reined in, at least to a degree. Miller, one suspects, has been taking a few lessons in the four years since “Magnificent Fiend”.
As a consequence, plenty of alarm bells will be ringing about the apparent taming of a once-underground rock band, albeit one whose psych-noise roots haven’t been much visible for a good few years; a band, moreover, that even their friends have frequently referred to as Stillwater. The opening “Self-Made Man” crystallises the situation: far from Comets On Fire, it sounds quite a lot like The Black Crowes.
If you’re OK with that (and I am, mostly), there’s a lot to enjoy on “The Russian Wilds”; by the way, you can check out a pretty representative track, “Cherokee Werewolf”, on the free CD that comes with this month’s issue of Uncut with Creedence on the cover. There are some heavy blues jams (“Can’t Satisfy Me Now”), a slow-burn/rave-up successor to “Lord Have Mercy” (“Strange Thunder”), plenty more Humble Pie and Vanilla Fudge nods (down in large part to Joel Robinow’s keys) and, among the weighty breaks, a great salsa coda, of all things, stuck on the end of “Phantom In The Valley”.
Maybe best of all is the guitar playing, with the ever-expansive Miller matched up against a new sparring partner, Isaiah Mitchell, from the fine stoner rock band Earthless (I can especially recommend their “Live At Roadburn”, incidentally). “Self-Made Man” bats on that way for eight minutes, and that’s fine, too.
I guess we’re used to indie/underground bands tapping into the late ‘60s and early ‘70s rock tradition, but it’s hard to think of one in a while who’ve dug into that sound so assiduously, and with the plushness that more time and money can bring. As a result, “The Russian Wilds” sounds heroically out of time. Weirdest of all, the most-contemporary-sounding track is a lovely and faithful cover of The James Gang’s “Collage” – if only because the harmonic blend is not a million miles from the Fleet Foxes.
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