Friday, 14 April 2006

Album Review: Howling Bells

Continuing Australia's rich heritage of fascinations with gothic culture, Howling Bells make blissful music with a dark and seamy underbelly. Their self-titled debut - released by Bella Union and produced by Coldplay producer, Ken Nelson - is variably uplifting, moody and haunting.

Opener, The Bell Hit is a gentle indication of the pacific melancholia that follows, and is followed by Velvet Girl, a slightly woozy and casually unsettling pop song, which recalls the inert psychedelia of Sister Lovers-era Big Star.

At the forefront of these opening tracks, and the remainder of the album, are Juanita Stein's astonishing vocals. Comparisons with PJ Harvey, while lazy, aren't too far wide of the mark. Her lilting swoon glides and swoops over almost the entire album, but on Broken Bones, she raises the pitch and completely lets loose. While the track is a somewhat traditional tale of a broken heart ("broken bones may hurt / but a broken heart will never mend."), Stein delivers the words with such power and such conviction that you look past the lyrical shortcomings; it's a trick that Stein repeats on Low Happening, the track with the album's outstanding chorus. As if to prove her versatility, Stein turns down the volume and raises the tenderness on A Ballad For The Bleeding Hearts, a glowing country song.

From the brooding Setting Sun to the almost whimsical, The Night Is Young, Howling Bells offer a stunningly dazed rock n' roll that fans of My Bloody Valentine and Mazzy Star would be well advised to check out at the closest opportunity.

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