Howling Bells - Radio Wars
Halfway through Radio Wars, leading Bell Juanita Stein muses, on the aptly titled Ms Bell's Song, that 'To cry doesn't make it any easier/To laugh doesn't always feel right'. Upon listening to the record in its entirety, when the radios have put away their guns and gone home, this lyric could be considered key to the band's progression on this, their second album. 2006's Howling Bells was a desolate, bracing but beautiful album, taking a bluesy and cinematic blueprint into the whiskey-swilling heart of the Old West which, for four Australians to achieve, was no mean feat. Although the album was critically lauded, adjectives like 'gloomy' and 'maudlin' followed them around, surely not helped by a live presence that was undeniably intense.
Fast forward three years, and the Bells' second effort announces itself with an album cover that casts each principle band member in a flash of neon. Are we to believe the band have dumped their previous sound for something a bit lighter, a bit more accessible, a bit more colourful than American Gothic? Or is it an uneasy combination of the two? As Juanita wisely puts it, sometimes it's neither any good to laugh or cry; ya gotta take the dark with the light...
Devout fans may feel short-changed by the lead single but should be happy that Cities Burning Down, a glorious and apocalyptic former B-side given a bit of a do-over, has finally been acknowledged - given its prominent position during their live set - as one of their best songs; if there's any justice in this world, it should heat up the charts to the degree Sex On Fire did last year. It's not the first thing you'll hear upon playing the album though, as the bold Treasure Hunt's key lyrics 'We're marching forward, looking backward/Hunting for treasure again' provides a mission statement of sorts for an album that mines gold, from both their old sound and more unexpected places, throughout its swift stay.
Anyone looking for another Wishing Stone or Velvet Girl will have to take their moodiness with a swig of bristling electronica this time, as most of the brooding stuff this time around comes with underlying flourishes that result in 'Portishead-lite'. I mean this in the best possible sense, a song like Golden Web honing Gibbons and co's distraught nightmares into something with a slightly more 'pop' sensibility but with a lyric creepy enough to put off arachnophobes. Perhaps tellingly, this record's heart of darkness is To L.A., which is tucked away as a hidden track, all semi-industrial beats and rumbling menace, as if the band are afraid it will scare off potential, casual punters.
So what will attract those lusted-after sales? After all, they're a band that deserve to be heard by a wider audience and many of the songs here seem to be doing their best to attain that goal, without sacrificing too much of what made them so special in the first place. Thereby, we get a song like Nightingale, the band obviously having learned a trick or two from touring with the Killers and fashioning a synth-drenched number that doesn't sound unlike Alison Goldfrapp copping off with Depeche Mode's Enjoy the Silence. Of course, Juanita is their key to crossover glory; her glam noir babe aesthetic, sort of Audrey Hepburn with a guitar and fully loaded gun, puts her up there with Emily Haines, Karen O and Jenny Lewis as one of the few female frontwomen around who utterly drip charisma.
Juanita's black magic combines with her bandmate's talents to create the overall scope and newly realised ambition that songs like Into the Chaos, with its lavish strings, subtle brass and 'epic' (yup, there's no way around that one) guitar build, convey. The wall of noise extends to Digital Hearts, which expands on a chugging Velvet Underground intro to deliver a sublime chorus and overall big blast of sunshine that takes them into new territory. The optimism is also present on the wonderful Let's Be Kids, which displaces their shoe-gazing persona and casts the band as hippyish dreamers; you may even crack a smile. However, the best example of how new tricks combine with old is the reliable melancholy of How Long, which brings a gorgeous and, in terms of melody, seemingly simple vocal to the forefront but underscores it with a stuttering beat that throws everything off-kilter and makes the song.
The only slight misstep is It Ain't You which is radio-friendly enough to sound a bit too much like Natalie Imbruglia given a slightly better song. We can forgive them for one mere pleasantry though, when they've ultimately succeeded in reaching the next level of what is hopefully a long and illustrious catalogue. I come to this album with more baggage than most; the self-titled debut, despite its prevailing tone of doom, soundtracked my first summer of love and is therefore evergreen to my ears. Thankfully, they've done it - and themselves - justice. One can only hope that the brief Radio Wars Theme, with its thudding beats, marching drums and militant vocal, delivers on its Muse-size threat to topple our soundsystems come album number three. Until then, we have enough here to laugh and cry about.