Check out Ethan Miller’s out-of-character white suit and the high-rise steel-and-glass jungle. The title and the cold photograph explain everything. Old San Francisco might be dying a super-fast tech-boom suffocation with its pop-up wealth and Launch Fest mindfuck, but a handful of recording artists like Ethan Miller (Howlin Rain, Heron Oblivion, Comets On Fire), Meg Baird (Espers, Heron Oblivion, Watery Love), John Dwyer (Thee Oh Sees), and retro-tech subterranean Eric Bauer have stubbornly dug in, for now, to make loud, intense psych-punk-noise rock the old-fashioned way, by burrowing deep into darkened control rooms, grinding away all night with guitars roaring, like a new generation of angry Beats determined to keep San Francisco the explosive center of crazy sound investigations and analog recording.
Thrashed by the sometimes overbearing anachronism of Rick Rubin and his light-bending celebrity, Howlin Rain’s “The Russian Wilds” (American Recordings, 2012) could have/should have been a giant leap forward for Miller’s career. It was logical, given Rubin’s former spooky ability to find an artist’s hidden, inner monster and Miller’s penchant for jam-rock supergroup sounds of yesteryear. Instead, it arrived DOA and remains a confusing, clichéd modern listening experience. (OK, so Rolling Stone loved it.)
But Howlin Rain’s “Live Rain” (Agitated Records/Silver Current Records, 2014) is a successful musical exorcism of the duller aspects of the studio “Russian Wilds,” using the intervening years and spontaneity of the road to crash through into stronger jam versions of songs like “Self Made Man” that burn far brighter in front of live audiences.
Thankfully, Miller has retreated from his Rubin/American Recordings near-death experience and moved into his more natural Beat/DIY/self-produced habitat to create a modern music masterpiece at Eric Bauer’s studio, Bauer Mansion, in San Francisco’s Chinatown. The new record is a work chiseled from the same stone as Jack Kerouac’s Big Sur. Like Kerouac, the wounded Miller retreated home to build new bands and work obsessively off the clock, striving to get clean through exhausting obsession.
The result, “Mansion Songs” (Easy Sound Recording Company, 2015), is an 8-song howl as purgative, a full-on return to a piece of the sonic frontier and gifted, connected songwriting that Miller’s Comets On Fire unapologetically voyaged into years earlier (incidentally, the Comets On Fire catalog is poised for reissue by Seattle’s SubPop, a much more fitting home and the same label to embrace Miller’s pastoral new Heron Oblivion psych-jam vibe with Noel Von Harmonson, Charlie Saufley, and Meg Baird).
The brilliance of “Mansion Songs” is its swing between classic rock/blues guitar lines wrapped around introspective tender acoustic moments, with lyrics cleverly wandering through fictional personas of addiction, suicide, rage, and literary San Francisco, much like Kerouac’s portrait of human weakness and breakdown, both familiar and ugly, with brilliant shafts of light punching through at the ragged edges of collapse.
Miller’s fatal-romantic narrator weaves a similar tale, song after song, as in “Meet Me In the Wheat,” a man raging at a world that’s reduced him to spiritual beggar, resigned but defiant unto the grave. “Big Red Moon” crawls through alleys and slums, stained with blood and filth and addiction, searching for any intoxicating, radiant, albeit fleeting moment to “ride the sky” and escape.
Every song on Miller’s “Mansion Songs” travels this way, each a narrative in a piece of exhausted landscape, searching, as they must do, to the final song on the record, “Ceiling Fan,” for “redemption.” This record couldn’t have been created anywhere but at Bauer Mansion, and it couldn’t have been produced by anyone but Miller and Bauer, who share the Production credit, pushed along by their relentless, collaborative friendship.
San Francisco remains Miller’s city. “Mansion Songs” is Miller’s testament to the eternal beauty of authentic writing and the unstoppable desire to make every record a down payment on the possibilities of whatever might come from the next late-night studio session.