Give a listen to Howlin Rain's new album, Magnificent Fiend, and you're likely to detect a lot of influences from the '70s American guitar-rock canon: The Allman Brothers, perhaps the Grateful Dead, any number of others. But even if the bare-bones elements of the songs, not to mention the instrumentation and production, are pretty in line with records put out 30 years ago, there's something oddly fresh about Howlin Rain.
"We might use methods that are from a different era," says Ethan Miller, the band's singer/guitarist. "There are no sampled beats, no sharp, Pro Tools-y sounds, but I don't think that makes the band sound old."
Here's a clue to what might make Howlin Rain different despite all its surface familiarity: When asked about his influences, the musicians Miller names aren't the obvious ones at all. For example, when he was writing Magnificent Fiend, he recalls, early jazz fusion was a major inspiration. Herbie Hancock and late-'60s Miles Davis led him to toy with his songwriting in new ways.
"If you listen to those records, when they want to convey an emotion, they don't just pick the chords that you already know will convey that emotion," he explains. "They'll substitute in a bunch of other chords that will also convey that emotion, but with a deeper, stranger resonance. That's what we tried on Magnificent Fiend: different tunings, different chords that would create a similar resonance."
Some audiences might be already familiar with Miller's work with the band Comets on Fire, California psych mainstays whose ranks also include members of Sunburned Hand of the Man and Six Organs of Admittance. But while Comets on Fire -- currently on hiatus -- have a louder blues-based sound that borders on being harshly noisy at times, that's not true of Howlin Rain. Which is part of the reason Miller started the band in the first place.
"I just wanted to try working with different points of architecture musically, with more harmony and melody -- and to have my own project, as opposed to the sort of meandering democracy" of Comets on Fire, he says. "What purpose would there be in doing something musically that you're already doing with another group? The idea is to learn new things and new methods, have different successes and failures."
And what if Comets fans aren't so enamored of the newer project?
"There are people who like one band or the other for very specific reasons, and they might not like the other because of something it's lacking," Miller answers. "I'd respectfully say that if they saw one essential quality of the group like that, they missed the point, but that's fine. For the most part, people can hear things they like in each band."
Miller penned Howlin Rain's self-titled debut album and recruited some longtime friends to play on it, and in 2006 it was released by San Francisco's Birdman Records. Before the second record was released this year, Miller got an inquiry from someone whose help you generally don't turn down: mega-producer Rick Rubin.
"He got in touch with me via e-mail," Miller explains. "We met up and talked about art and music and about maybe working together. Magnificent Fiend was basically finished when we agreed to a deal, and so it ended up coming out as a co-release by Birdman and [Rubin's label] American Recordings."
Miller and the rest of the six-member group that plays on Magnificent Fiend delve even further into quiet nuance and ratcheted-up production. The addition of a prominent Hammond B-3 in some songs and an occasional horn section creates thick layers of sound on top of the laid-back country-rock vibe. The easygoing music also highlights the oddly persistent rhythmic pace of Miller's lyrics. He's long been interested in writing prose and poetry in addition to music (he studied literature at UC Santa Cruz) and clearly thinks of words as a vehicle, not just an ornament affixed to music.
But don't worry that a laid-back record means a snoozer of a show. For those who venture to see Howlin Rain at the 31st Street Pub on Sat., March 29, Miller promises more than an accurate rendering of the record. "I don't like the idea of the live performance as a replica of the album -- I think live we're more unhinged and musically aggressive. The claws come out, the teeth are bared ... everything gets a little more ignited."
Howlin Rain with Centipede E'est, The Incline and Magic Wolf. 10 p.m. Sat., March 29. 31st Street Pub, 3101 Penn Ave., Strip District. $8 ($10 at the door). 412-391-8334 or www.31stpub.com
- Magnificent fiends: Howlin Rain