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Sunday, April 30, 2006

Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, Howl

The best way to sum up this review would be this: Howl is a near-gospel experience, and that’s no bad thing.

While fans of the band probably expected--or even hoped for--a helping of harder-edged rock music, what they got was more exciting. What they got was a band reaching beyond its garage aesthetic and finding a gorgeous mix of blues and gospel and an early 70’s rock delivery.

Opening with “Shuffle Your Feet”, BRMC immediately gives us harmonies, layered acoustic guitars, touches of harmonica, and a lively, clap-along beat. It’s a musical feel that will carry throughout the album; it also introduces the lyrical content. Not only does BMRC do a fair imitation of the sound of gospel music, but the lyrics are occupied with thoughts of God and the ultimate disposition of our souls.

The thread runs from the slow country croon (well, whine, really) of “Devil’s Waitin’” on through the slow-building grit of “The Line.” While the vocals won’t win awards for beauty, the overall sound is a revelation for a band that had almost ceased to exist when critics and fans alike seemed underwhelmed by their previous release. Howl is filled with fuzz and echoes that make the thing feel more grounded and real than slickly produced albums with no room for stray noise; that sound lends a sense of authenticity that helps overcome the shocking change of sonic direction.

It’s not a perfect album. The title track, “Howl” is a forgettable sway that occupies about four and a half minutes of the album’s time for no appreciable reason and “Still Suspicion Holds You Tight” is just as pointless. For that matter, at times it would be a relief to hear a more resonant voice than Peter Hayes and Robert Turner (aka Robert Levon Been, son of The Call’s lead-singer Michael Been).

Still, looking past the couple flat bits on the album, the reward comes in moments of exceptional song-writing and gripping tunes. In fact, it’s hard to imagine something better than the spacious and warm “Fault Line"--a song that single-handedly comes close to making the CD worth the purchase price. It’s just cake that you get the aforementioned “Shuffle Your Feet”, the stomp of “Ain’t No Easy Way”, the well-developed gospel of “Promise”, the intimate whisper of “Gospel Song”, and the back-porch feel of “Restless Sinner”.

The high points definitely outnumber and overshadow the low points on Howl. Here’s hoping that BRMC can hold it together to make another trip down this trail; it’s a powerfully good slice of Americana.

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