The Russian Wilds
By David M. Goldstein | 20 February 2012
My guess? Ethan Miller simply decided to stop fucking around. He’s in his mid-30s, been in some band or other for the past fifteen years, and figured it was high (heh) time to make a record worthy of the classic rock forbears he so obviously worships. So now he’s got Rick Rubin in the executive producer’s chair and a recording budget worthy of his aspirations—which isn’t entirely why The Russian Wilds is only rivaled by Comets on Fire’s Blue Cathedral (2004) as the best album Miller’s has anything to do with, but it helps.
And about that increased recording budget? Howlin’ Rain actually sound like a real band now, sonically equipped to rival like-minded throwbacks like Heartless Bastards, White Denim, or (heaven help us) Chris Robinson. Their prior two records, while unquestionably fun, felt like the Comets on Fire side projects they were initially pegged as, hamstrung by watery production and unintelligible lead vocals which seemingly floated atop the music. Everything seemed a little too wink, wink: Miller often was more concerned with dropping as many 1970s tribute riffs as possible versus writing memorable songs. So if the chunk-a-lunk opener “Self Made Man” initially sounds a touch too Blueshammer! for its own good, that’s only because both vocals and guitars have a newfound oomph and clarity indicative of studio dollars put to good use. It’s also eight minutes long, with dub bass lines worthy of Billy Cox, three-part harmonies, and at least six different guitar solos. The target audience is still thirty-something white males who’ve spun their fathers’ vinyl copies of At Fillmore East (1971) an unhealthy amount of times, but for arguably the first time in Miller’s career, those same thirty-somethings will be able to sing along.
But neither a bag full of studio money nor Rubin stroking his considerable beard would make a difference if the songcraft wasn’t strong; Miller’s finally managed to write tunes that could easily have been legitimate rock radio hits from 1972, as opposed to stuff that merely reminds one of the same. In addition to Miller having to assemble a new band (which now includes guitarist Isaiah Mitchell from gnarly San Diego psych-rockers Earthless), the four-year gap between Howlin’ Rain records was also attributed to Rick Rubin supposedly forcing Ethan Miller to write over 40 original songs, only nine of which are included here (“Plex Reception” is an interlude, “Collage” an obscure James Gang cover that might as well be an original). The cream of the crop now yields radio gems like “Cherokee Werewolf,” which takes its chorus harmonies from Boston and its good-natured choogle from the Marshall Tucker Band, and like the Joe Cocker strut of “Can’t Satisfy Me Now,” which suggests that while he’s always had a wild voice, Miller’s finally learned how to sing.
Miller’s vocals remain an unholy amalgamation of Rod Stewart, Humble Pie’s Steve Marriot, and Terry “Superlungs” Reid, but it’s to his credit that he no longer feels the need to blow it out on every track. The Russian Wilds expands Howlin’ Rain’s ’70s repertoire to now also include laid back AOR soul tracks that nearly border on Yacht Rock, like the shuffling “Dark Side” and “Beneath Wild Wings,” the former of which Donald Fagen could have legitimately delivered on Aja (1978). Plus, the latest incarnation of the band (only jack of all trades Joel Robinow remains from the first two albums) features heavily hirsute dudes who convincingly enact soulful three-part harmonies on nearly every track (and assuring that their oft-played live cover of Vanilla Fudge’s version of “You Keep Me Hanging On” kills). “Cherokee Werewolf” even uses brassy female back-up singers, a nice touch but probably not too professional prior Howlin’s Rain documents. In other words: Rick Rubin don’t do charity work.
As with anything tagged with the Ethan Miller name, warm nostalgia trumps originality. But it’s also unfair to call Howlin’ Rain a mere ’70s tribute band at this point; The Russian Wilds is a demonstrative bid for being taken seriously, and these guys simply exhibit too much enthusiasm to be relegated to mere also-rans in the long shadow of Miller’s previous band. The psych-blowout of Comets on Fire will be missed, but Howlin’ Rain is clearly the man’s main squeeze now, and a better use of his songwriting talents. The Russian Wilds is Miller’s best shot to date at achieving something approaching mainstream recognition, and per usual, a perfect medium for inducing father-son bonding, so long as you can stomach the inevitable story from 1968 where pops smoked something he shouldn’t have and had a three-day “out of body experience.” Hi, Dad!