By John Curley
Howling Bells’ first album, self-titled and released in 2006, was an outstanding debut. The band had relocated to London from Sydney, Australia. With the move, they also rechristened the band. They had been known as Waikiki when they were based in Australia and had released an album under that name in 2002, which was titled I’m Already Home. In addition to renaming the band, they also changed their sound, going from the power pop of Waikiki to a very effective country/rock/blues hybrid as Howling Bells. The new, very distinctive sound of the band highlighted the fantastic vocals of frontwoman Juanita Stein. Howling Bells’ great first album made it appear that they were poised for a major breakthrough. However, the band’s next two albums, 2009’s Radio Wars and 2011’s The Loudest Engine, were less successful than the debut album was.
Fortunately, Howling Bells’ latest album, which is titled Heartstrings, can hold its own against the debut album. For this album, Howling Bells added a new bassist, London native Gary Daines, to the lineup of Juanita Stein on rhythm guitar and lead vocals, Glenn Moule on drums, and Juanita’s brother, Joel Stein, on lead guitar. Heartstrings only has ten tracks, which is a good thing as the listener gets one good track after another (and some really outstanding ones) with no filler to pad it out. Discussing the length of the album in a press release, Juanita Stein said, “I wanted this album to specifically have ten songs on it and no more –’cause I personally start to lose interest after ten songs. I wanted it to be pacy and brief and full of good and meaningful music.”
“Paris,” the opening track, is a strong one, with Moule’s solid drumming and chiming guitars backing Juanita Stein’s dreamy vocals. “Possessed” is a brief but powerful song driven by Moule’s drums. “Your Love” is a really beautiful, ethereal track. “Slowburn,” the lead single from the album and the standout track, is a radio-friendly tune that highlights the guitars and Juanita Stein’s vocals. “Tornado,” written by Peter Stein, Juanita and Joel’s father, features a country sound to a nice effect. “Euphoria” is a slower, soaring, gorgeous song that puts the vocals up front. “Paper Heart” is a stunning track that throws a curveball at the listener, as it features only piano and vocals with no guitars or drums. “Original Sin” features the return of the guitars and drums, with a loud/quiet/loud dynamic that sounds like Nirvana with Juanita Stein on vocals. The guitars are highlighted on “Reverie.” And “Heartstrings,” the title track and album closer, is a slower song that features hypnotic vocals.
Heartstrings is released on Birthday Records, an independent label founded by former Kaiser Chiefs drummer Nick Hodgson. (Juanita Stein and Hodgson play together in the side project Albert Albert.) The album was written at Juanita Stein’s home in North London last autumn and was produced and recorded at Assault & Battery Studios in London by Catherine J. Marks with Alan Moulder.
Howling Bells are currently touring behind the album in the UK. They will also be appearing at England’s V Festival in August. For full tour dates and additional information, go to http://www.howlingbells.co.uk/.