Gone are the thundery, sinister stylings of Howling Bells’ 2006 debut, as Radio Wars ushers in a slicker, sweeter incarnation of the Aussie foursome. Ironic that it should be titled Radio Wars, for if one phrase sums up the new sound, it’s radio-friendly.
With its gurgly, bass-heavy melodies and helium vocals, the album yanks us backwards and drops us squarely into the US college radio sound of the mid-’90s. The ghosts of R.E.M. and The Go-Betweens bob up and down in the background of virtually every song; any of which would slot seamlessly into the track listing of a Throwing Muses or Belly album.
This appears to be a deliberate act of rebranding, from the swishy New England sound to the hey-look-at-us cover art. No more dusty horizons and gothic trees; now it’s all Warhol passport portraits and MySpace pouts.
All of these observations would be small-minded nitpicking if it wasn’t for the fact that this album is as unremarkable and disposable as a Domino’s pizza box. Musically, it’s all mid-tempo indie-by-numbers, shimmery enough to accompany an scene of upbeat emotion in Dawson’s Creek; yet sufficiently credible, as indie so often is, to provide the soundtrack to a montage of trailers in an advert for a new Film 4 season.
None of this is a crime of course, but things become more serious when we consider (a) Juanita Stein’s feisty-yet-vulnerable warbling, so close a match for Tanya Donelly‘s proto-emo delivery that a civil, if not a criminal case could reasonably be brought against her; and (b) the eye-watering fifth-form poetry for which the aforementioned warbling acts as a conduit.
“I’m search-en for treasure again”, “You’re the king and I’m the queen / It could be such a wonderful thing”, “Every light wants to shine on your name”, “Come sing with me a melody in the dark of the night”, “Everyone’s got a reason to be free”, “Let’s be kids again / Life was so simple then”, “This city’s burn-en down again”. Lyrics that James Blunt would turn up his piggy little nose at; and a mangling of the present participle that would make Conor Oberst choke on his granola.
Only one track, Cities Burning Down, pops its head over the parapet. Lyrics aside, it’s dreamier and spookier than anything else here, evoking the unsettling bluesiness of Mazzy Star, and, to some extent, the band’s own debut. Golden Web starts promisingly enough, with moody electronics and bone-dry guitars, but a minute in, we’re back into generic semi-angst, both lyrically and musically.
No need, then, for Radio Wars, even if you’re into – or curious about – this sort of thing. Punch “Belly” into Spotify’s search box or Last.fm’s radio feature and you’ll see it’s all already there, and that it’s already been done a hell of a lot better.