A long time ago, rock music ruled the world; it dominated the radio so much that nobody blinked when a five, or even 10, minute song became an inescapable, played-to-death ubiquity. Musical heroes staked their claim on the stage before retreating to coke and groupie filled tour buses, only to do it all over again the next town over. It was a time before sincerity and swagger were replaced with irony. San Francisco’s Howlin’ Rain evokes those times with their third album, The Russian Wilds.
If anyone wanted a crash course in 70’s album-oriented rock, The Russian Wilds is it. Album highlight and lead single Phantom of the Valley begins as a bluesy style of rock before switching to a Santana-esque vibe, with irresistibly heavy percussion building to a gloriously trumpeted finale. Impressive vocal harmonies prevail on tracks like Collage. On “Cherokee Werewolf” and “Can’t Satisfy Me Now”, the band goes gospel with soulful backup singers complementing vocalist Ethan Miller’s fire-and-brimstone growl. The requisite ballad comes in the form of Strange Thunder, beginning as a wistful lament, but building to an unabashedly grandiose finale.
It’s been four years since Howlin’ Rain’s last album, and producer Rick Rubin reportedly wanted the band to record this one only after an extended bout of touring. Often it’s on the stage where songs are fully actualized, and Rubin had the right idea: the songs have that road-tested feel to them, so much that it’s a perfect soundtrack for a driving-for-its-own-sake ride to nowhere in particular. The Russian Wilds captures the magic of on-stage jamming , such as the psychedelic guitar solos on opener Self Made Man. Perhaps rock isn’t dead, after all.
Essential tracks: Phantom in the Valley, Strange Thunder