Howlin Rain: Mansion Songs

Mansion SongsCheck 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.

The Russian WildsThrashed 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.)

Live RainBut 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.

721616030129_mainThe 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).

Heron OblivionThe 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.

Fill Your Ears

Bog Ears 2016

I’ll be proudly serving my music masters at Indie Street Radio in a couple of weeks at the 2016 installment of the Big Ears Festival in Knoxville, Tennessee. For a limited time you can grab a download (100% free and legal) with 18 tracks by some of the cool artists who’ll be appearing. I’ll have an official press and photo pass, so I’ll get to stick my nose in everything. Then I’ll be writing up blog posts for a few weeks after the event. We’ll try to do a real-time live podcast as the event is unfolding. If it works you’ll get to hear what I sound like along with Nick Rennis (he sounds much cooler than I do). As for my vox, don’t get your hopes up. I don’t sound much different from you. Probably even less so.

Shadowhouse: Hand In Hand

shadowhouse-coverMusic is like millions of small revolutions happening every hour of every day of every month of every year, in your head and in the heads of all the musicians in the world creating new music, each scrambling to find ways to say things that barely seem expressible before it appears, leaping from the imagination into the teeming, messy, viral world. Accepted or rejected or neglected, each revolution is claimed and compared by the faithful to every other revolution that’s ever been tested. Each revolution reveals universal yearnings, whether conscious or unconscious.

Music is evolution extending itself. Music is at once familiar and dangerous, built on top of countless layers of destruction. Genres like punk, hardcore, goth, and post-punk popularly return, on average, about every 8 to 10 years, to renew the franchise and upset the taste makers. Punk isn’t about being clever, nor is it just about aggression or spectacle. It’s necessary speech clawing its way toward whatever needs to be said.

Originally released by Mass Media Records on a very limited-edition vinyl pressing in 2014 and now reissued as a cassette by Resurrection Records, “Hand In Hand” by the Portland-based band Shadowhouse seems to spring forth fully formed as a polished post-punk throwback to the dark moods of Joy Division, Echo & the Bunnymen, and The Sisters of Mercy. It’s so close in kinship with these bands that you’d swear you’re back in the 1980s. But not so.

Poland2015Even in today’s age, fractured by genres and sub genres, we get the music we need for the times we’re living in. Driven by the post-apocalyptic guitar lines and extraordinary voice of Shane McCauley, Shadowhouse renews the post-punk franchise by providing a time machine back to a sound and a feeling that at first listen feels more nostalgic than pioneering. But as the lyrics sink in, as the music swirls around you (you must play this record loud), songs like “Lonely Psalm,” “Toys,” and “Warning” demonstrate a stretching, searching quality that mark this record as something more than an imitation or homage to past times. “Hand In Hand” makes this a band to bookmark.

As a debut, the quality of this production, recorded in Portland and mixed in London by the punk tech masters at North London Bomb Factory, the energy of “Hand In Hand” invokes a raw, live performance in studio or in a small club. I have no idea how “Hand In Hand” was recorded, but engineers like to tame post-punk rockers into softer, more commercially mixed packages. If you’re unfamiliar with this impulse, compare the studio “Unknown Pleasures” by Joy Division with “Les Bains Douches 18 December 1979.” (Shane, call me! I want to write about how “Hand In Hand” was really made.)Denmark2015

The real test will be the next record from McCauley, Ashley Geiger (synthesizers), and Josh Hathaway (drums), to see how they will claim this space as their own.

The close ties of this band’s sound to Joy Division remind me of something the master revolutionary and immortal troublemaker Gandhi wrote, about being forced to work outside the oppressive boring mainstream of ideas and prejudices. He said first they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.

So it is for all those who venture into banal loyalties and sacred spaces. That’s the place that gave the world punk to begin with. The message from Shadowhouse seems to be it’s time to start again.Start Again Color Nov 2014

(All artist photos supplied by the band and used by permission. All rights reserved.)

Regeneration

They’re back. Overcoming the loss of their lease at their previous location in Anacortes, Washington, and then recovering from a fire in their new location (before they officially took possession), The Business record shop has started its new life in Anacortes, in their stunning new digs at 216 Commercial Avenue (just a couple of blocks from where they were). It’s been emotional for Nick Rennis and Evie Opp, but they’re back with an expanded shopfront, an expanding distro business, and now a new subscription program. Browsers and subscribers needed. Their new subscription program is available for both in-store pickup and can be shipped globally.

According to Nick and Evie, you can choose from:
Distro- Cassette Subscription – One tape from their family of labels each month for 12 months. ($60)
Distro- CD Subscription – One CD from their family of labels each month for 12 months. ($120)
Distro- Vinyl Subscription – One record from their family of labels each month for 12 months. ($200)
Custom Vinyl Subscription – One record selected by their experts for you each month for 12 months (includes a fun questionnaire). ($240)
Premium Distro-/Custom Vinyl Subscription – One record from their family of labels plus one record selected by their experts for you and one 7″ each month for 12 months. ($500)
(Domestic shipping adds $50 to any subscription.)

Music is life. And The Business has been part of that life in Anacortes since 1978. It’s a project. It’s an experiment. It’s a testament.

The Business
216 Commercial Ave.
Anacortes, WA 98221 USA