Monday, February 25, 2013

The Howlin’ Brothers: “Howl” (2013) CD Review

It took only a couple of moments of listening to Howl before The Howlin’ Brothers became one of my new favorite bands and I was calling friends to rave about them. I love the way they belt out the lyrics. There is something deliciously raw in their delivery, particularly on the first couple of tracks. Not that they can’t sound sweet when they want to. Just listen to “Just Like You” or “Mama Don’t You Tell Me.” Then they show they’re also accomplished musicians on a bluegrass tune like “Julia Belle Swain.”

But this band is not just bluegrass – it’s country, folk, blues, even some New Orleans grooves on a song like “Delta Queen.” And whatever type of music the band is playing, they infuse it with their own infectious energy and enthusiasm. This band seduces you with the subtlety of a freight train. (These guys would be a great double bill with Holly Golightly And The Brokeoffs.) Most of the album’s tracks are originals.

“Big Time,” the album’s opening track, sounds just a bit like “Walkin’ Blues” at the beginning before the vocals come in. But the moment the vocals start, any similarity ceases. This is great raw kick-ass country folk. It is not refined, not polished – just some damn good fun. The song’s lyrics are simple, with lines like “Goin’ down south, gonna have a real big time” and “Goin’ down south/Gonna make you moan and howl.” And yes, the song even has a bit of howling in it. There is also something of a good jam. Warren Haynes co-wrote this one, and performs on it. (You know him from his work with the Allman Brothers, Gov't Mule and Phil Lesh And Friends.)

“Hermitage Hotstep” is like back porch folk, if the porch were attached to a brothel with a dance floor. Take your medicine, dance with your cousin (but only ‘cause she’s prettier than your sister). “No, I don’t want no gal who lives in NYC/I just want a gal with me in Tennessee.”

They get to the bluegrass on “Julia Belle Swain,” a tune written by John Hartford. This song shows these guys really can play, and its quick tempo will get you moving.

“Gone” has a seriously catchy groove, plus features some fun stuff on fiddle and some delightful lyrics.  She warned me once, warned me twice/But I don’t take no woman’s advice/And I’m gone, gone, gone.” And before the end of it I am singing along, shouting “Gone” along with them. On an album that is truly full of excellent material, this might be my favorite. “You stole my heart, and now you want to give it back.”

“Delta Queen” has that great New Orleans groove. I can totally imagine Dr. John digging this and covering it. It has that great Mardi Gras party atmosphere. (I could do without the false ending, but that is a small matter.)

They then do an interesting version of the blues on “Tennessee Blues,” a song with a somewhat jazzy feel to the drumming. This is a groovy late-night gem. I enjoy the backing vocals, which surprised me the first time I heard them, and which help to give the song an old-time feel. The backing vocals feel more like those from an old cowboy song, and they totally work.

“My Dog Can’t Bark,” written by Otis Smothers, is a wild tune that quickly sneaks up on you. It’s a fierce, bluesy song with some good jamming.

It’s that “whoa” part that really gets me on “Tell Me That You Love Me” and makes me love the song – like a demented choir left on the range by an evil nun with a whip and a nearly empty flask of whiskey. The song has a great urgency, as he repeats, “Tell me that you love me/Tell me that it’s true/Make my heart bleed/Make me feel real.” It’s sort of a love song, but it’s not about sweet talk, as there’s no time for that as he’ll likely be bitten by a rattlesnake soon if she doesn’t yield.

“Just Like You” has a wonderful, easy-going bluegrass groove, with a dose of blues-folk. “Blues in my whiskey/Blues in my tea/Ain’t it just like you, babe/To put the blues in me.” And hell, it has a kazoo. So there.

“Take This Hammer” is more of that fast-paced manic bluegrass music that we all love. Their playing is seriously impressive on this track. And when they slow it down near the end, their vocals sound wonderful.

Yonder Mountain String Band turned me onto the tune “Boatman Dance” years ago. The Howlin’ Brothers do more of a hoedown-type version, and it’s a lot of fun. And the backing vocals on the “Steamboat John” lines have me laughing out loud every time.

“Mama Don’t You Tell Me,” the album’s last track, begins a cappella with several guest vocalists, and sounds beautiful. This is a sweeter tune, and I really like it.

CD Track List

  1. Big Time
  2. Hermitage Hotstep
  3. Julia Belle Swain
  4. Gone
  5. Delta Queen
  6. Tennessee Blues
  7. My Dog Can’t Bark
  8. Tell Me That You Love Me
  9. Just Like You
  10. Take This Hammer
  11. Boatman Dance
  12. Mama Don’t You Tell Me

The Howlin’ Brothers are Ben Plasse on upright bass, banjo and vocals; Ian Craft on fiddle, banjo and vocals; and Jared Green on guitar, harmonica and vocals.

Howl is scheduled to be released on March 5, 2013 on Readymade Records through Thirty Tigers.

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