The Grammys have had everyone mulling over popular music culture for the past few days. Another year has come and gone with little surprise and even less recognition for many great artists. It’s at the point where stadium-rock figurehead Dave Grohl has to sermonize about learning guitar, appearing like an outsider in a landscape of heavily-processed dance-pop. Even the independent music scene, fostering relatively DIY ideals, is increasingly occupied by swirling home-brewed approximations of epic electronic music. Like Decca Records said 50 years ago, guitar groups are on the way out.
Of course, the Beatles proved Decca wrong, and the periodic doubt about the future of rock n’ roll usually ends with a new hope. Another young crew of kids with guitars releases another slim, precise record that recasts rock n’ roll for their divergent peers. Smith Westerns’ second record came out last year amid lots of this same fanfare, but their love of glam T. Rex melodies left little more than a nostalgic impression. It’s a similar midwestern quartet of boys that occupy the conversation this year, with a name to match their primal twang: Howler.
Hailing from Minneapolis, Howler is a raucous outfit which at the moment mostly fields Strokes comparisons. Their full-length debut on the storied Rough Trade Records, “America Give Up,” has a similarly jarring quality to “Is This It,” but it’s obvious that frontman Jordan Gatesmith has a different stylistic approach to rock revival.
Part of it is his age; at 19, Gatesmith may have been hearing Julian Casablancas on the radio before he’d even heard of acts like Tom Petty. Howler also finds itself on a slightly more reverb-heavy wavelength, making surprisingly surfy music despite their non-coastal hometown. They’re the kind of band who leads off their record with a track called “Beach Sluts,” which fittingly summarizes their retro-tinged juvenilia and healthy irreverence.
They also have the chops to back it up. “America Give Up” steers clear of the clichéd “lo-fi debut,” which offers a clear, unobtrusive palette for the band’s straightforward guitar work. None of the riffs here are revelatory, no triumphant solos, but the whole thing is head-bobbingly listenable, even from that first chime in “Beach Sluts.”
Other tracks quote obvious influences: The melody of “Back to the Grave” recalls the Jesus and Mary Chain, “Back of Your Neck” brings the Chuck Berry, and there is a Ronettes beat on “Too Much Blood.” It’s great fun to hunt for these allusions, mostly because Howler is digesting them well enough to not sound too derivative.
Best of all, “America Give Up” barely reaches a half hour in length, with no song taking more than four minutes to unhinge. The band has a talent for maintaining their energy, and as such their album doesn’t sag in its back half; the midpoint, “Wailing (Making Out),” might be their finest song on the record, careening from dulcet keyboards to Gatesmith screeching “I’m so tired of making out” while a penetrating fuzz guitar anchors the middling tempo. These are young guys throwing around vintage rock tropes, but they’re really hitting the mark.
Howler has ascended to “next great” status, but “America Give Up” hasn’t failed its hype. The record is an invigorating reminder of why rock n’ roll shouldn’t be in such peril. Hopefully their sneering, jangly racket will entertain when they kick off their Midwest tour at Lawrence on March 7. You should swing by if you want to join in heralding the latest rock Renaissance.