What a difference three years can make. Back in 2006, it was a pre-requisite for any self-proclaimed fanatic of independent music to openly cherish, nee fall in love with Aussie exiles Howling Bells. If the weight of critical acclaim their every move seemed to attract wasn't enough to engender their rapid ascent, then surely the sultry good looks of leading Bell Juanita Stein would convert the non-believers, of a heterosexual male variety at least. On the flipside of course there's always a cynical aspect. For starters, the most resounding definition of their music to date is that it's "nice". Not challenging, not exceptional, not inspirational, just nice. And herein lies the biggest question; if it weren't for Ms. Stein's admittedly striking good looks, would as many people really care two hoots for this band? Like it or not, for this writer, Juanita Stein is to Howling Bells what Louise Wener was to Brit-Poppers Sleeper; an instantly recognisable focal point that deflects attention away from the bland musical entity being served up whilst increasing the product's marketability.
Perhaps I'm being a little harsh here, as while there is nothing particularly exciting about Radio Wars or indeed Howling Bells in general, there isn't anything to get too offended about either. Across its ten songs, the album sets its stall out from the word go in that this is quite clearly their attempt to break through into the murky waters of daytime radio playlist territory - their 'Final Straw' if you like (something they maybe picked up on whilst ironically supporting Snow Patrol on the Australian leg of their last world tour two years ago). Certainly there isn't an awful lot here to suggest they've moved on in any way, shape or form from the promise their self-titled debut hinted at back in 2006, despite enlisting feted studio boffin Dan Grech's services throughout the recording process.
More worrying is the fact that the album's stand out moment is in fact the oldest song on here by some three years or so. 'Cities Burning Down', already released in several previous guises as a b-side and Dance To The Radio compilation track among others, soars above the rest of Radio Wars like the proverbial sore thumb, and while its grandiose magnificence cannot be denied, concerns must be raised as to how Howling Bells spent the interim period between albums one and two if their hallowed benchmark is a song that was only initially considered good enough to be a bonus track on a limited-edition single not so long ago. One also wonders just how much of a part their recently-assigned label Independiente had in the selection process for Radio Wars compared to the creative freedom previous gatekeepers Bella Union would have allowed.
Nevertheless, the Pretenders-go-dream pop whirl of 'It Ain't You' with its "You won't save me/You won't break me" refrain and Spectoresque melancholy of closer 'How Long' also save the day, while 'Into The Chaos', for all its musical similarities to Coldplay's 'Clocks' is sublime in its execution, Stein's nonchalant vocal pronunciations fitting with hand-in-glove precision alongside its timeless melody. The penultimate swoon of 'Digital Hearts' could be The Duke Spirit - another outfit in a similar vein to Howling Bells, both in aesthetic and musical terms - having undergone an Antipodean makeover. All in all though, Radio Wars is disappointingly average; pleasant but fairly forgettable, and in contrast to its misleading title, should really have been named Radio Friendly instead.
6Dom Gourlay's Score