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When the legendary Norfolk disc jockey, television presenter, and cultural commentator Alan Partridge was asked who Wings were, he replied 'They’re only the band the Beatles could have been!' Whilst the joke acknowledges that only the most aesthetically deaf imbecile would prefer the music of Wings to McCartney’s former band, the fact remains that for the inquisitive Beatles fan who has absorbed and exhausted the entire back catalogue of the Fab Four, there lies ahead the inevitable voyage into the inconsistent world of the Plastic Ono Band and, as equally validly, that of Wings. Though he may have had his reputation cemented by his unfortunate martyring, only fools continue to insist on Lennon being significantly superior to McCartney, or on the clichéd pigeonholing of John as 'the experimental one' and Paul as 'the poppy one' (listen to The White Album, and you’ll find Lennon expelling all of his experimental tendencies in one shot, the exhausting Revolution #9, with McCartney shrewdly spreading his throughout the double album, appearing at his most playful, satirical, political, diverse, innovative, and influential). Whilst the post-Beatles findings may at times be frustrating or disappointing, there remains a wealth of rewarding material to be discovered.
I mention this for two reasons. The first is that Howlin’ Rain are amongst those astute enough to recognise the merits of Wings-era Paul, their best recording to date having been an epic 15-minute stoner jam cover version of Wings’ zoo-bashing animal rights meditation ‘Wild Life’ released via the Three Lobed label. This piece had a spontaneous, improvisational electricity that their two LPs (2006’s self-titled and 2008’s Magnificent Fiend) generally lacked, despite being joyous and vibrant at times.
The second reason is that, in an alternative hipster universe where Sonic Youth headline Glastonbury instead of Coldplay, Bardo Pond are number one every week instead of Gaga, and ownership of Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music is considered a necessity rather than an indication of possible mental instability, Partridge’s quip may have taken the form of 'Howlin’ Rain? They’re only the band Comets on Fire could have been!' For what Wings are to the Beatles, so Howlin’ Rain are to Comets, a more polished, more pedestrian, and less highly regarded version of the exciting and unpredictable original.
So how does The Good Life EP match up to singer Ethan Miller’s previous output? The opening, title track begins with a chunky, attention-grabbing stop/start bass/organ riff of the type The Apes used to specialize in. Soon enough Ethan’s presence is felt, hollering his hairy heart out, and as he does everything briefly sounds a little more conservative as the ‘Rain settle into their groove and there’s a slight worry that track won’t manage to prolong the excitement of its first thirty seconds. Luckily, however, over the course of the next six minutes or so the track contains enough lifts and dips, and twists and turns, that before you know it the ride’s over quicker than you hoped. 'Burning of the Midnight Lamp' isn’t quite as pleasing. The sax solo (a nice idea) is unfortunately so pedestrian it’s barely existent, and there are some unfortunate Spinal Tap-ish lyrics about how Miller needs somebody to ring his bell (he hollers this line with such passion it’s tough not to giggle). It’s here that HR plunge, as they are prone, too far into the murky depths of pointless imitative Seventies dinosaur rock, sounding like the only record any of the band members have ever heard is the Dazed and Confused soundtrack. Perhaps they prefer Wings to the Beatles because they refuse to listen to anything produced outside of the Seventies. Closing track 'Hung Out in the Rain', meanwhile, is a pleasantly slow-tempo number with a country/gospel feel, and brings the atmosphere down as satisfyingly as an efficient dimmer switch.
Whilst not quite reaching the heights of their McCartney cover, this EP is more enjoyable and adventurous than the most of the band’s previous album tracks. Hopefully HR’s next album will be of a similar quality, and the reason that the band (or perhaps their patron, beardy uber-producer Rick Rubin) amputated them from the forthcoming record was for reasons other than that they proved a little too interesting for inclusion.