It’s late on a Saturday night, and a majority of the crowd has headed out of the bars and back to their beds in preparation for the Sunday hangover. The band has been playing half-hearted classic rock covers all night, getting sloppier and more inebriated as the night goes on. There’s a lull after the closing chords of “Won’t Back Down”, and the singer closes his eyes and leans on the microphone. In a thick voice, as full of liquor as emotion, he begins to sing. His words begin unintelligibly but soon gain some semblance of order.
“-and you’re stoned with the animals
At the 18th Street Park
That ain’t the ringing of the golden bells of heaven
It’s just the stinging of your fool’s gold heart
Well your head goes up like a cheap cigar
As you crawl the ghetto alleys and the skid row bars
I got fifteen dollars in my hand
If you got ten tonight, we’ll be kinsmen to the stars
Big red moon-”
There’s the briefest of pauses before he grabs the microphone. Electric guitars blare, a piano begins to jangle, cymbals crash, the band finding a rhythm behind the singer, just as sloppy but also with brute driving force. It’s part CCR choogle, part Steve Miller layer of sound, and part extract of San Francisco fog. The band and the singer build together, ebbing and flowing through this beautiful mess. Somewhere in the six minute wall of music are some horns, a harmonica solo, and a fatigued (but impassioned) wail.
This is the opening track, “Big Red Moon”, on the album Mansion Songs by Howlin Rain, a band lead by former Comets on Fire singer Ethan Miller.
Mansion Songs is a throwback record, reminiscent of so many bands and sounds of the early and mid-70s. The light reverb and sparse production are evocative of a time and place, but Miller does more than just rehash someone else’s golden years. He combines the thoughtful evaluation and incisive condemnation of his lyrics with carefully arranged instrumentation, ranging from the groovy “Wild Bush” to the almost classical “Lucy Fairchild”. I must have listened to this record a dozen times and still have to parse what Miller is saying, not just for meaning but for symbolism and metaphor. This is especially evident in the closing track, a sprawling seven minute spoken word piece reminiscent of Beat poetry in which Miller name-checks several of his idols and inspirations.
There’s so much here, from inspired and energetic musical stylings to carefully constructed despair, that it’s obvious Mansion Songs is a work of unrestrained artistic effort. These eight tracks vary in sound and tone, but are so consistent in quality, that I think this record is well worth your time. At the very, very least “Big Red Moon” should become your soundtrack for the second to last shot of the night…the one that you maybe shouldn’t take, but you do regardless.