Well, spank that mechanical bull and call me Sally—San Diego is crawling with Americana bands! John Meeks and Brawley have that classic country twang. Little Hurricane and Low Volts throw down hardened bluesrock. The Silent Comedy captures the manic energy of a Pentecostal tent revival. The Tree Ring evokes the solitary beauty of a mountain landscape.
But we’re a long way from Nashville. Hell, we don’t even come close to Bakersfield or Laurel Canyon. While those locales can all claim to have a distinct “sound,” San Diego is more like a Boot World store, with some bands trying on a bunch of different styles, taking what fits and declaring themselves rootsy.
That’s the case with The Howls on their new album, Rocky Ground. With the full-bodied alt-country of “Weight,” they sound like Wilco. On the heady “Vacation,” they could be mistaken for late-’70s-era Jackson Browne. The title track’s perfunctory barroom honky-tonk, meanwhile, could’ve been recorded by any forgettable bar band that recently passed through the South.
The Howls hit on a sound of their own, however, when they crank up the reverb, slow the tempo to a dreamy pace and let singer-guitarist John Cooper stretch his vocal range. On album centerpiece “All,” Cooper lets out striking falsetto howls as the band builds a crescendo of U2-style arena-rock. He uses the same vocal technique (which perhaps explains the band’s name) on closer “Come Around,” a ghostly tune with a poppy hook that lingers like a picturesque sunset.
Still, even the album’s stronger tracks suffer from clichéd lyrical themes. Indeed, while bands like The War on Drugs infuse roots music with new ideas, The Howls mainly just borrow from their elders. If they can eventually harness what makes them them, they’ll have more to offer than mere fool’s gold.
The Howls play with Jesse LaMonaca and The Dime Novels, Family Wagon and Old Tiger at The Casbah on Friday, Jan. 27.