Howlin’ Rain’s The Alligator Bride may be indebted to some readily-discernible contemporary rock influences-unlikely opposites such as Free and the Grateful Dead-but only indirectly so and then only gleefully so. There’s not one iota of slavish devotion on the band’s first release for Silver Current Records but, on the contrary, musicianship as unforgiving as the lyrics (and vice-versa).
Rootsy but not overly reverent, “Rainbow Trout” is only one sign of how much is going on during this record. Intellect and muscle usually don’t co-exist, much less in such potent (or joyously abandoned) fashion, but bassist Jeff McElroy and drummer Justin Smith alternately drive and dig in, a combined effort that simultaneously anchors and liberates Miller and co-guitarist Daniel Cervantes to careen their way through chord changes like those of “Missouri.”
It’s almost as if the guitarists are riding the propulsive sounds coursing through their fretboards and rippling through the rhythm section. Particularly when multiple voices chime in, the singing can soar as high as the lithe musicianship here and it’s as if those harmonies erupt at the spur of the moment, kinetic action (largely) tracked live by Eric “King Riff” Bauer at ‘The Mansion’ studio: considering the innate spontaneity of Howlin’ Rain, the co-producer’s capture of these performances is no small feat.
The Alligator Bride isn’t all cacophony and cataclysm though. “Speed” is as delicate as can be, for the most part anyway, its sequencing within the seven tracks as astute a demonstration of dynamics as the contrast that occurs within the middle sections of this arrangement. The quartet dances around each other as they play toward the end of that cut, effectively setting up the enticing, dreamlike electric guitar intro to “The Wild Boys” where, harmonics and all, Howlin’ Rain once again defy expectations on this fifth LP of theirs.
It’s almost as much fun to hear this foursome play loose and free, like they do during the latter portions of “Coming Down,” as when they apply themselves more strictly to the structure of Ethan Miller originals like the emphatic title song or the semi-balladry of “In the Evening;” the latter is further testament to Howlin Rain’s self-knowledge as well as their refusal to inordinately prettify their otherwise elemental sound. In roughly an hour’s playing time, the first release on the label owned by bandleader Ethan Miller–who carefully oversees all curation, recording, graphic design, and distribution—augurs well for both this band’s art and its commerce.