Recording in the American desert seems to hold many attractions for bands who want to reinvent themselves – it’s been done in recent years, with varying degrees of success, by The Killers and Arctic Monkeys, and now comes Howling Bells’ third album, recorded in Las Vegas and produced by The Killers’ bass player, Mark Stoermer.
For if ever there was a band that needed a fresh start, it’s Howling Bells. Their debut, self-titled, album in 2005 seemed to usher in a genuinely exciting new talent – full of dusty, evocative bluesey folk numbers that stood up gloriously to repeated listening. Yet the follow-up, Radio Wars, seemed to squander all the goodwill. More polished, more commercial, and oddly heavy on the synths, they’d lost that very edge which made them special.
So it’s no surprise to see that The Loudest Engine sees the Australian quartet go back to basics. Joel Stein’s guitars are once agan to the forefront, while Juanita Stein sounds like a woman reborn, after her flat, lifeless performance on Radio Wars.
At first listen, it’s a wise move – Charlatan is a stormer of an opener, with guitar riffs ripping through the speaker and Juanita cooing sweetly “You’re not a man, you’re a beautiful, beautiful charlatan”. It’s followed by the single Into The Sky, which is even better, a thrilling, soaring number which recalls the best moments of that debut.
The Stein family are the undoubted stars here. Indeed, it sometimes feels like there’s some sibling rivalry going on here, especially on the title track where the quality of Joel’s guitar solos are equalled by Juanita’s vocal performance. Stoermer is obviously a good partner for the band, producing a gritty ‘live’ sound which suits them down to the ground.
Having said that, The Loudest Engine still has a way to go to match their debut. The album could do with some judicious editing, being at least two tracks too long, and at times the lack of variety becomes wearying, with too many songs seeming to blend into one another.
The one song that does stand out is Gold Suns White Guns – but for all the wrong reasons. For some reason, Juanita decides to adopt a falsetto for the song but it just ends up sounding like a bad impression of Kate Bush. It unsettles the flow of the second half of the record and sounds like an out-take from another album.
On balance though, The Loudest Engine shows Howling Bells back on track. They’ve not equalled their own high standards on here, but this is still a rebuilding project. Despite the occasional lapse into MOR sludge, this is mostly the sound of a band back on form.