Howling Bells tackles classic Americana pop but wrap it in a glossier, more contemporary package. On their previous self-titled LP, the group teamed up with Coldplay producer Ken Nelson with predictable results, a record built around melodies, hooks, and only momentary lapses into grandeur. Radio Wars, however, brings former Nigel Godrich assistant Dan Grech-Marguerat behind the boards as they band attempts to crawl into different sonic territory, a weirder and more complex layer of sound accompanying Juanita Stein’s pretty vocal work. That all looks great on paper. The question is, does it all come together on Radio Wars?
Radio Wars takes a few risks that garner few rewards. As a record, it’s got a great feel (though I still don’t understand the concept of burying a hidden track behind minutes of silence as they choose to do with hidden track “To L.A.”), a warm record with considerable replay value. The guitars rush in the right spots, the percussion becomes minimal when other elements of the track stand out above the low end, often to accentuate Juanita Stein’s vocals, vocals reminiscent of Great Northern’s Rachel Stolte or a less edgy version of the Kills’ Alison Mosshart. Guitarist Joel Stein (Juanita’s brother) provides guitar tones both (at different times) atmospheric and clean, asserting his versatility. On paper, it’s a great record. On paper.
The problem lies in the very nature of the songs on Radio Wars themselves. Maybe the record doesn’t punch where it needs to, or maybe the hooks and melodies aren’t that strong to begin with—that’s all difficult to pull apart. Take the single “Cities Burning Down.” The song, perhaps a good symbol for the rest of the record, builds too slowly and never really reaches anything close to a climax. There’s nothing on Radio Wars that’s a true single, the closest being either “It Ain’t You” or “Digital Hearts.” Though I commend Radio Wars for it’s strong sequencing and pace, “Golden Web” is a clumsy album clogger, a song rife with lyrical clunkers and a deep sense that the band’s trying too hard to posture themselves as intellectual, thoughtful music makers.
I’ll never scold a group for switching producers and trying new things, especially when the first record was generally well received, finding a sound with Ken Nelson that they could have easily squeezed a couple more records out of. Radio Wars just doesn’t play to Howling Bell’s strengths. Though Juanita Stein has a great voice for the type of music Howling Bells makes, she’s not a particularly good lyricist, a big issue because Stein’s vocals are pushed so forward in the mix that sometimes Radio Wars sounds like a Juanita Stein solo record. The instrumentation on Howling Bells is strong and shouldn’t be solely subservient to the vocal track.
The way that Howling Bells constructed Radio Wars relies on strong melodies, hooks, songs, songs that aren’t really there, ideas not quite developed. It’s a noble, even bold, attempt to move out of their comfort zone, but perhaps they didn’t move far enough—the band never seems too confident in their new sound, evidenced by the lack of passion and fearlessness that could really make Radio Wars something.
There’s a sound out there that fits Howling Bells, their own unique sound, but they haven’t quite found it. It’s out there—they just need to be more self-aware before they go leaping into sounds they can’t fully get their arms around.