Howling Bells powerless with Radio Wars

Originally published in The Daily Iowan 7/28/2009

After getting some exposure by supporting Coldplay on the North American portion of its Viva La Vida tour, Australian quartet Howling Bells is ready to complete its run for U.S. audiences with the release of its second album, Radio Wars.

The album’s title itself fits well — implying the band believes it can conquer the mainstream audience by getting heavy radio play. Unfortunately, the album is intent on tricking listeners into believing the songs are going one way only to make a U-turn when its direction appeared to be certain. Like a good plot twist, this can be a strength or letdown. Here, it’s the latter.

The best example is in the album’s first single, “Cities Burning Down.” The song starts with only Juanita Stein’s voice and brother Joel Stein’s guitar followed by Glen Moules’ drums as Juanita Stein repeats the song’s title. And while this sounds like a precursor to an explosion of indie-pop confetti, the listener is quickly taken back to the wallowing of the first verse.

There are similar moments within the tracks “Let’s Be Kids,” “Nightingale,” and “Into the Chaos,” all of which are the equivalent of having the beginning of a commercial jingle repetitively playing in one’s head.

Radio Wars’ first upbeat track, “It Ain’t You,” provides the first sense of joy in Juanita Stein’s voice. She opens the track by pining for a lover, singing that seeing his face and hearing his voice everywhere is “such a beautiful thing.” While the sound treads a bit into Coldplay territory — minus the heavy piano — the song is enough of a change that the connection is no more than an afterthought.

The album’s second single, and best track, “Digital Hearts,” succeeds because it breaks the album’s trend of false promises. From the first second, every instrument is going at full speed, almost as if the band took all its built up energy in every other hook and put it into three and a half minutes of exaltation. If it weren’t the album’s penultimate track, it wouldn’t risk becoming a case of too little, too late. Thankfully, it doesn’t.

Radio Wars suffers from what “Sam’s Town Syndrome” — a few good to very good songs that can’t save the rest of the album. Sure, a couple of the memorable tracks will probably end up on buried on a mix tape or playlist, but the others will be left alone. While most of the songs on

Radio Wars show promise at one point or another, sometimes an unfulfilled vow is better off unsaid.

Tyler’s Picks: “It Ain’t You” and “Digital Hearts”

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