Nashville-based outfit the Howlin’ Brothers take bluegrass and old-timey music as a starting point that allows them to rip into traditionally inflected tunes with a verve and energy that wouldn’t feel out of place on a rock ‘n’ roll record. Debut album Howl kicks off with the banjo riffage and harmonica skronk of “Big Time”, and the energy rarely flags afterward. The trio, consisting of Ian Craft, Jared Green and Ben Plasse, share vocal duties and bang away deftly on an array of acoustic instruments, attacking the material with gusto, whether it’s the bluegrassy, fiddle-driven “Julia Belle Swain”, the moody, downtempo “Tennessee Blues” or the New Orleans jazz of “Delta Queen”—a song that sounds an awful lot like the Grateful Dead’s take on “Iko Iko”.
Modern-day power pop icon Brendan Benson may not seem to be an ideal choice to produce a bluegrass band the likes of the Howlin' Brothers, but the group's 2013 set Howl illustrates that Benson picked up a few tricks from his Raconteur bandmate Jack White. First of all, Benson keeps things simple and earthy, capturing the trio's natural interplay but preserving just enough echo and air to give this a little bit of grit without ever seeming filthy. Nor do the Howlin' Brothers seem well-scrubbed, like so many groups do in the wake of the success of Mumford & Sons.
This Nashville trio are the latest to attempt modernizing the jug band/bluegrass tradition and on their debut album, they do a good job injecting some energy into well-worn themes. While not as tight and forthright as predecessors such as Old Crow Medicine Show, the Howlin' Brothers check all the right boxes, from the ripping, fiddle-led "Julia Belle Swain" to the Dixieland stomp of "Delta Queen." However, there's an undeniable sense that the group and producer Brendan Benson (the Raconteur) worked a little too hard trying to live up to an ideal. Sure, there are plenty of rough edges on Howl that illustrate the group's lively interplay, but in the end, too many songs ring hollow.