Release Date: Jul 28, 2009
Record label: Nettwerk
Genre(s): Indie, Rock, Pop
Howling Bells toured heavily in support of their self-titled debut, playing international shows alongside heavyweights like Coldplay, Snow Patrol, and the Killers. Released three years later, Radio Wars finds the group polishing its mix of country-noir and alternative pop/rock, a sound that now owes far more to the latter category. If 2006's Howling Bells was the fictional soundtrack to a gloomy art house film, then Radio Wars is its big-budget sequel, a collection of minor-key anthems and Technicolor melodies that are both stylish and cinematic.
If Howling Bells’ self-titled 2006 debut was a roll in the dust of some lonesome country road with Donnie Darko, Radio Wars has the Sydney foursome unlocking a secret garden where the gnomes and squirrels have picked up instruments and lead singer Juanita Stein is enchantress. Indeed, this long-awaited sophomoric effort, coming three years after Howling Bells, is a conscious romp down nostalgia lane where economic crises and 9-to-5 drudgery are suspended in cinematic fantasy. But like any good fantasy, Gothic forces, far from banished, lurk in the fringes.
"Radio wars are coming," London-via-Sydney quartet Howling Bells harmonize halfway through their second album and first in three years, Radio Wars. "They're here. " While it's not entirely clear what they're on about, there's little doubting that whatever form these radio wars may take, Howling Bells are ready for them.
T hey hail from sunny Sydney, but this solid second set cements the Bells firmly in rock's melancholia tradition, echoing the Bunnymen and Tindersticks. Cities Burning Down recalls 2006's fine Low Happening, and while some songs drone on (How Long), the minor chords toll with uplifting misery..
Howling Bells raised some eyebrows with their debut album's antipodean take on melodramatic gothic guitar pop. The follow-up tinkers with the formula, adding synths to the swooping chord changes beneath Juanita Stein's breathy singing. Stein is the band's trump card, and their achilles heel. Just as Louise Wener was in Sleeper, she's the sexy face in front of three anonymous-looking men: the definite focus on stage.
What a difference three years can make. Back in 2006, it was a pre-requisite for any self-proclaimed fanatic of independent music to openly cherish, nee fall in love with Aussie exiles Howling Bells. If the weight of critical acclaim their every move seemed to attract wasn't enough to engender their rapid ascent, then surely the sultry good looks of leading Bell Juanita Stein would convert the non-believers, of a heterosexual male variety at least.
On their overlooked self-titled debut, Australia’s Howling Bells bypassed the typical old-rock-referencing, easy-to-spot-the-Television-and-Blondie-influence that similar bands get into. Instead, they played like some strange mash-up of ‘70s country rock, new wave, classic rock like Thin Lizzy and a pinch of psychobilly. That mélange made them interesting, but also meant they’d be excluded from the throngs of bands doing classic-rock pastiche and cashing fat checks and prevented Howling Bells from getting a proper U.S.
Howling Bells tackles classic Americana pop but wrap it in a glossier, more contemporary package. On their previous self-titled LP, the group teamed up with Coldplay producer Ken Nelson with predictable results, a record built around melodies, hooks, and only momentary lapses into grandeur. Radio Wars, however, brings former Nigel Godrich assistant Dan Grech-Marguerat behind the boards as they band attempts to crawl into different sonic territory, a weirder and more complex layer of sound accompanying Juanita Stein’s pretty vocal work.