The Duke Spirit must look at the Howling Bells and think: jammy gits! Both play an epic bluesy pop-rock and both have outstanding female vocalists but it’s the Australians who are getting all the attention (though they have paid their dues: in Sydney, they were an indie-pop band called Waikiki in 2002-03 and then relocated to the UK as the Howling Bells). Part of the current interest in them is the look: Juanita Stein’s perfect ‘It girl’ style and the perfect stubble/ hair/ teeth /black outfits of brother Joel (guitar), Brendan Piccio (bass) and Glenn Moule (drums) are a PR person’s dream. And more importantly it’s the sound. It’s epic indie-rock, bluesy and night scented, the songs filled with swathes of space and horizon stretching vistas, but with a strong melodic root. A song like ‘Velvet Girl’ belongs on a David Lynch soundtrack or a sixties-set spy movie, all dark-eyed soulful vocals and crepuscular backing. ‘Setting Sun’ stands out for the immensity of the sound, Juanita’s voice strong against the background of scintillating guitars and rock solid beat. ‘In The Woods’ has a boy-girl vocals and a wall of guitar noise, not challenging but comforting, like Mazzy Star - interestingly, Juanita’s voice is best compared to Hope Sandoval or PJ Harvey. The first single from the album, ‘Wishing Stone’, is a pretty pop song with echoey production and sweeping guitar riffs while second single ‘Blessed Night’ is super-poppy with choppy guitars and a precise, almost military drumbeat.
Their apprenticeship in Waikiki seems to have done them good (though you can’t tell as all the samples from that time have been removed). They’ve now produced a gorgeous record, where some parts are dark and intense and others are light with spirit- lifting melodies. Put them together and you have a classic first release. It’s one of those records that will definitely be in our minds in the end of year polls.