Audio Mixers: Eric Bauer; Ethan Miller; Bob Marshall.
Recording information: Bauer Mansion, San Francisco (2014).
Photographer: Alissa Anderson .
According to Ethan Miller, Howlin' Rain's founder, frontman, and only constant member, Mansion Songs is the first recording in what is conceived as a trilogy. This is not a concept recording per se; there is no set narrative, but there is a trajectory. In his own words, he "...wanted to track the journey from nothingness back to creation in musical form in a set of three albums and rock bottom was the perfect place to start from." While that reads lofty bordering on pretentious, these eight songs -- recorded with a revolving cast of musicians (most prominently Meg Baird in a variety of roles, including drummer and backing vocalist) and co-producer Eric Bauer -- are anything but. The blown-out fringes of Live Rain are nowhere present, and if anything, the album's sound is far more understated than anything they've ever done. It's closer to the band's 2006 debut offering, but looser, rawer -- some cuts were finished after one or two takes. Though Miller is a mighty axe slinger, there are no guitar pyrotechnics here, only confessional, intimate songs in various tempos and arrangements. "Big Red Moon" commences the album with Miller singing completely a cappella. The words are poetic, full of desolate streets, filthy barrooms, and poverty. The protagonist embraces them with the promise that connection with another in the dark, under the moon, with a bottle of whiskey offers unnameable possibility. On the refrain the band kicks in: slide guitars, drums, tambourines, three electric guitars, and saxophone. It's a ragged rocker, full of restless country soul and a garage band's commitment. "Meet Me in the Wheat" offers country blues in its intro with lovely backing vocals from Baird (who also plays drums), slide electric, 12-string acoustic, and more. It unfolds as a twisted, desperate gospel rocker, full of pain and pathos, though it musically evokes the Black Crowes circa Southern Harmony and Musical Companion. The twinned acoustic slide and organ break in the middle is priceless. The ballads, "Coliseum" and "Lucy Fairchild," are perhaps more effective because of the stark images evinced by Miller's words, his simple melodies and expressive vocals deliver the weight of his emotional state directly without the distraction of electric instruments. That said, "Reckless," using sparing, haunted, electric guitar sounds, is the most forlorn track here. Closer "Ceiling Fan" employs acoustic piano as the catalyst to shift its focus from post-Beat Generation spoken word with musical accompaniment reverie, to a large group rock & roll redemption song. It may contain too much name dropping, but its refrain and coda, buoyed by squalling, controlled feedback amid the acoustic instruments, are searing. It will be interesting to hear where Miller and his Howlin' Rain project take the rest of this trilogy, but Mansion Songs stands on its own as a portrait of Miller's considerable musical and poetic growth over the last nine years. ~ Thom Jurek