Howler frontman Jordan Gatesmith is clearly and openly obsessed with ’80s college-rock legends and fellow Minneapolis natives The Replacements. Their 2012 debut America Give Up was littered with references to Paul Westerberg’s lyrics and sound, and while the eclecticism and snideness evident on that album compared to Westerberg’s 1987 mixed bag Pleased To Meet Me, this follow up has devolved into something more like the scratchy and patchy Hootenanny of 1983; with even the cover being almost identical. Fifty percent of the personnel has changed since their debut, and while there’s some good stuff here, much of the album feels contrived and lacklustre; and perhaps missing an ingredient or two that would inject a little excitement. The cascading guitars during the first few seconds of opener ‘Al’s Corral’ sound promising before some unimaginative vocal phrasing render it underwhelming. There’s thrashy punk rock brashness on ‘Drip’, ‘Louise’ and ‘In The Red’, while the title track is a fairly forgettable spurt of downbeat lo-fi post-punk. There’s a distinct tail-off towards the end too, with the pop-tinged ‘Indictment’ and folky ‘Aphorismic Wasteland Blues’. ‘Here’s The Itch That Creeps Through My Skull’ is interesting as it veers into lovelorn ballad territory, while single ‘Don’t Wanna’ is the most Replacements-esque track here and benefits as a result. “You don’t have to listen to me if you don’t want to,” Gatesmith sings, which is pretty reassuring by this stage in proceedings; proving that as a songwriter, he has a long way to go before matching his hero’s standards. (Rough Trade)
Unfortunately for Howler the Strokes’ last album wasn’t a stinker; otherwise this spirited bunch of young Minnesotans would probably take their place as the rightful heirs to the throne of fuzzy, floppy-haired, lo-fi strum ’n’ roll. While Casablancas and Co. can still bear each other’s company long enough to show the young pretenders how it’s done, bands like Howler will continue being the young wannabes stuck in the kitchen at the cool kids’ house party.
That’s not to say Howler don’t have the tunes or the indie cred to have the Strokes looking over their shoulders, and in front-man and Johnny Borrell-lookalike Jordan Gatesmith they have the song-writing-and-cool-haircut combo that makes hipsters and label bosses alike cream their jeans. Upon hearing their unsolicited demo, Rough Trade boss Geoff Travis couldn’t get across the Atlantic fast enough to make Howler his new charges. Gatesmith, a self-confessed Stiff Little Fingers fan, jumped at the chance to sign.
America Give Up showcases Howler’s ability to blast out catchy rock-pop hooks blended with vintage sounds. They avoid the risk of being labelled a rip-off or bandwagon-jumping band by plundering the archives of dirty rock ‘n’ roll to create an energetic, fun, and frantic debut. Single ‘Told You Once’ epitomises this best; its simple, jaunty riff defying you not to tap your feet or crack a smile. ‘Back of Your Neck’ encapsulates 50s Elvis riffs, spritely ooh-ooh-oohing, and weapons-grade swearing. Elsewhere, ‘Beach Sluts’, ‘This One’s Different’, and ‘Free Drunk’ provide plenty of riffs with just the right mixture of poise and slop.
America Give Up is a fantastically-promising debut album full of charm and potential. So, until the Strokes release their next masterpiece or pack it in altogether, enjoy this bunch of upbeat, tousle-haired tunes. While America Give Up doesn’t quite make Howler the new international world beaters some sections of the music press have labelled them, it’s a cracking debut. And that’s something we can all appreciate. (Rough Trade)