What’s ailing the music biz? According to multiplatinum producer and newly minted Columbia Records co-head Rick Rubin, the problem is quality—or lack thereof. “So, what’s important right now is to find music that’s timeless,” he told the New York Times Magazine last September. Not long before then, Rubin signed the roots-rock act Howlin Rain to his Columbia-distributed label, American Recordings. The deal is unlikely to pay financial dividends in the short term. The California-based sextet is best known—to the extent that it’s known at all—as the side project of the neo-psychedelic outfit Comets on Fire. But if timeless music is the order of the day, Howlin Rain might be just the sort of band that Columbia is looking for.
It didn’t always seem that way. Howlin Rain’s self-titled debut, released in 2006, has the air of an afterthought. The songs lack the fervor of Comets on Fire’s chaotic riff-rock, and the band’s singer-guitarist, Ethan Miller, admits that he developed much of the material on the spot. Rubin, however, heard something compelling in Howlin Rain’s hazy, freewheeling music, which he discovered after he saw Miller on the cover of the freak-music publication Arthur Magazine. Perhaps it was the same potential that compelled Rubin to sign the Black Crowes, a roots-rock outfit that, before becoming a punch line in Maxim and a footnote in Kate Hudson’s bio, was once a hit-making machine. Or perhaps it was the band’s back-to-basics vibe, which Miller once described as “earthy, rural, and masculine.” Either way, Rubin’s gamble has already paid aesthetic rewards. Howlin Rain’s full-length second album, the new Magnificent Fiend, isn’t just an improvement over its predecessor—it’s an impressive reconciliation of punk aesthetics and the blues-based rock that punk tried to overthrow.
A clue to how much the band’s changed is on the new album’s first single, “Calling Lightning Pt. 2.” The song is a follow-up of sorts to “Calling Lightning With a Scythe,” one of the more memorable cuts from Howlin Rain’s debut. Miller argues in the new album’s press notes that the tunes are connected, but besides sharing a lyric in the chorus (“We are only slaves to our ghostly arms and legs”) there’s little resemblance between them. “Calling Lightning With a Scythe” is a rhythmically simple freak-folk track that climaxes with a tempest of migraine-inducing guitar licks and raggedy gang vocals. “Calling Lightning Pt. 2” is a sleek-but-not-slick R&B number that culminates with some of the prettiest guitar harmonies ever put to tape.
Is this even the same band? Turns out, it’s not. Miller and bassist Ian Gradek are the only holdovers from the previous record (an indie release on the small Birdman label). And Miller’s new hires—drummer Garett Goddard, multi-instrumentalist Joel Robinow, and guitarists Mike Jackson and Eli Eckert—sound as if they were kidnapped from a Sheryl Crow session. When I caught the closing strains of “Calling Lightning Pt. 2” on a mainstream radio station, I was surprised. Not because there’s anything inaccessible or odd about the instrumental coda, but because ever since grunge died, I’ve grown unaccustomed to hearing a formerly underground rock act in a pop music context.
That experience relates to something Miller told Arthur; discussing the first Howlin Rain record, Miller said, “I wanted to sonically represent the history of California bands.” Not all of them, of course. Just the ones that sound like Fleetwood Mac and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. The debut didn’t quite achieve that vibe, but Magnificent Fiend’s closing track, “Riverboat,” shows that Miller didn’t stop trying. The chorus, sung by Miller and Robinow, is reminiscent of nothing so much as Neil Young in full pastoral mode. “Take my arrow, the last one I got,” the two men sing in close harmony. “Wait for the wind to take your shot.” Subject matter aside, this song about an ambush is surprisingly upbeat. Just before the song ends with the protagonist’s demise—don’t worry about him, he’s looking forward to seeing a loved one on the other side—the band eases into an instrumental section that, in just under two minutes, evokes all the sun-blanched optimism of an ascendant Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks.
What makes this album more than just a trip down memory lane is Miller’s voice. The Howlin Rain frontman sings best when he’s singing loudly and with great intensity, so he gravitates toward arrangements that allow him to belt it out from the very first note. In terms of originality, this inclination toward bluster is hardly a problem. The energy with which Miller begins a song like “Dancers at the End of Time,” a hoarse-voiced tribute to sci-fi author Michael Moorcock, gives Howlin Rain’s music a rawness that few in the majors can match. It also means that Miller’s attempt to capture, as he says, “the nonnegative masculinity vibe” of those easygoing Californians of yore is just that—an attempt. Try as he might, this fan of yesteryear is much better at being Ethan Miller than a carbon copy of any of his Nixon-era inspirations.
And yet some will undoubtedly dismiss this music as retro. Should the tag stick, it’s only because, no matter how much punk-rock you throw into the mix, the blues often sounds old-fashioned to modern ears. This has a lot to do with punk itself, which, as a rule, eschews any influence that smacks of jam-band licentiousness. That Miller embraces both—and more—says a lot about his nonideological attitude. The standard-issue blues riff that introduces “Goodbye Ruby” might not suggest an omnivorous musical appetite, but that in combination with Miller’s punkish vocal—not to mention a lyric like “spirit dead, shackled arms”—certainly does. If Miller were just piling cliché upon cliché, as the New York Times’ Ben Ratliff argued in his review of Magnificent Fiend, why would “Goodbye Ruby”—the most ham-fisted song on the record—feature such an unpredictable horn chart? Or guitar harmonies that glide in and out of improvisations? Or lyrics that aren’t about sex, the biggest blues-rock cliché of them all?
And anyway, what’s more timeless than a cliché? Had Bob Dylan sung over these Hammond-drenched grooves, baby boomers would be falling over themselves to call it his best in years. And they’d be right. Dylan, of course, is a better lyricist, but, as an instrumentalist and composer, Miller has tapped into the same mashup spirit that defined Dylan singles like “Subterranean Homesick Blues” and “Like a Rolling Stone.” At some point, trend-chasing music fans—like those who embrace Vampire Weekend’s self-described “Upper West Side Soweto”—are going to have to struggle with albums like Magnificent Fiend and come to terms with exactly what makes the blues seem so frozen in pre-punk amber. When they do, hopefully they’ll find it’s no different—and actually more important—than “Upper West Side Soweto” or Middle Eastern-psych, or Asbury Park bar-rock—or any other sound that’s suddenly popular again. They might just find that Rick Rubin was right about the “timeless” thing.