The best artistic creations spring from dualities. There Will Be Blood's villainous oil baron vs. the naive preacher kid. The Road's barren apocalypse vs. the tender father-son kinship it inspires. Trident Splash gum's strawberry sugar juiciness vs. its tangy lime tartness.
Digging into rock 'n' roll, you have Columbia Records titan Rick Rubin and Howlin Rain frontman Ethan Miller. The discrepancies between the two are blatant. Rubin owns a pad in Malibu where you can hear the sound of the ocean. Miller rents an apartment in Oakland where you can hear the incessant bark of a needy neighborhood mutt. Rubin grew up in Lido Beach, Long Island, and started Def Jam Records out of his dorm room. Miller grew up in Eureka, California, and briefly interrupted his modern literature studies at UC Santa Cruz to sleep on floors and eat gas station grub in a rock band.
And yet the common ground they tread goes deeper than their penchants for growing scraggly lichen beards. Last year, Rubin was on the cover of The New York Times Magazine for heralding a new era of record labels at Columbia; in 2006, Miller was on the cover of "the new weird" music mag Arthur for heralding a "cosmic California" sound. Both are viewed as rock spokesmen of sorts, but Rubin is the maker of megahits, while Miller has gained his fans from the underground. It seemed highly unlikely that their paths would ever cross.
That all changed last January, when Arthur fan Rubin invited Miller to his seaside abode to drink iced tea, listen to jams, and sign Howlin Rain to Columbia subset American Recordings. Although Miller has earned mileage as the frontman for arty acid rockers Comets on Fire, he has yet to land on a major label's payroll. But Rubin, the industry soothsayer who predicted the future in Slayer, the Beastie Boys, Dixie Chicks, and Johnny Cash's later years, took such a shine to Howlin Rain's bluesy country rock that he wrested the band off local indie label Birdman. American and Birdman will now jointly release the band's sophomore album, Magnificent Fiend, on March 4; American has also signed the band for future albums.
In Miller's yin-yang universe, though, you're nothing if you aren't operating among opposites. From the title of the new record — pairing the ebullient with the evil — through the final note of "Riverboat," dramatic clashes electrify earthy tunes. Slow piano jams spill over into orgiastic tumult. Dissonant feedback mellows into sober reflections. Miller's vocals pivot from a feathery falsetto to a husky howl and back again. Everywhere you listen, Howlin Rain's music is teetering on the distortion-blurred edges of elation and sorrow.
"Howlin Rain is like early-'70s rock," says Birdman owner David Katznelson. "But because there's that Comets edge, there's also that dark greenish-brown psychedelic twinge that really gives it the meat most other bands don't have."
Surrounded by haphazard stacks of poetry books, science-fiction novels, and music magazines in the living room of the home he shares with his wife, Raeni, Miller expounds on his theory of bittersweet symphonies. "A song will open up if there's not just death and murder, but there's also a twinge of love," he says. "Or it's not just a love song, but there's a twinge of pain. That's what makes our deepest literature and art human." The song "Calling Lightning Pt. 2" on Magnificent Fiend offers a perfect example of this sentiment wrapped in metaphors, as Miller sings, "Hold the dogs at bay/Your laughter was a lover that ran today/I tried to wield a greater blade/But all you lions can keep your bloody pride."
Miller's childhood rite of musical passage was earned in his father's car as they spent mornings driving out to chop logs for a wood-burning stove. His dad would beat on the steering wheel in time to Kenny Rogers or Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, while Ethan held the coffee cup. "It was total dad shit. He'd be singing and hitting my knee, and I'd be like, 'Whoa, we're going to cut down some wood,'" Miller recalls. "It was really earthy, rural, and masculine. There's that kind of aesthetic, that nonnegative masculinity vibe associated with music, and I put a healthy dose of that into Howlin Rain."
Miller takes influence from the music of icons familiar to anyone stopping the clock in the years around the Vietnam War: the Allman Brothers, Terry Reid, David Crosby, Neil Young, and San Francisco legends from the Grateful Dead to Quicksilver Messenger Service. Howlin Rain tweaks classic rock with distortion and dissonance, giving the music a newer sound than anything dad would tap out on the dashboard.
On Magnificent Fiend, "Lord Have Mercy" is the literal gospel according to Miller. It references classic gospel choir scales and chords, slides in slow-burning organ melodies, and offers warnings of plagues like man-eating insects. Like the rest of the album, the song sheds skins with each new passage. A reflective piano bit backs Miller's hushed sinner's confessional; a triumphant Allman Brothers lick aids his plea for mercy; and then the heavens give way to a loud instrumental celebration of this finale — Miller giving himself over to a god who "has my number under the thunder in his hand." The song ends in a tailspin of ecstatic vocal harmonies, sprawling to the outer edges of what he calls "faith and doom."
Miller's lyrics are dosed with references to God and Jesus. That may seem odd since he is agnostic, but he points out that his "personal faith in this world and the faith of my narrative voice are two separate things." He says he calls on biblical allusions as a lyrical device. "I'm using it as metaphor for different kinds of things that I'm trying to say very quickly in short stanzas," he adds. "You bring religious elements in, and you have a couple thousand years' worth of resonance just in one phrase."
Other songs tone down the biblical lightning, but are just as jubilant about man struggling with his beliefs. "Goodbye Ruby" is a fun boogie-rock tune with a blue lining of homesickness turning the narrator's "heart a beggar." Miller's velvet croon tears open the more he remembers what's been left behind, turning his delivery into a passionate, horns-backed wail by the end. But that sentiment gets flipped in "El Rey," when Miller tells a friend to untangle himself from the past, offering assurances that "You don't have to change/You don't have to hold onto your past/You don't have to carry it down this path."
Magnificent Fiend's songs hang on you, as the native of the misty North Coast would say, "heavy as three days of rain." That's due in large part to the musicians Miller handpicked for the band, a crew with the skills to let loose with his vision. Drummer Garett Goddard is a fixture on the East Bay punk and garage scene; bassist Ian Gradek has been a buddy since high school; and regular guitarist Mike Jackson occasionally trades off duties with Drunk Horse's Eli Eckert. But it's guitarist, keyboardist, and horn player Joel Robinow (also from Drunk Horse) who really sparks with Miller musically.
Sitting in producer Tim Green's Louder Studios on a rainy January night, Robinow and Miller lay down radio edits of "Calling Lightning Pt. 2" and "Nomads." Isolating the pair pinpoints a chemistry that can go unnoticed in Howlin Rain's mellow maelstroms. Their voices were made to harmonize together, dancing all over the melody lines and sounding at turns woeful, weary, and old-soul wise, with Miller the more weathered of the two. Robinow also breezes through myriad styles on a piano. Listening to the playbacks, Green jokes that one of Robinow's ivory interludes sounds very "Welcome to the Hyatt Hotel," while Miller asks his friend to aim for more of a "hot-tub jam" vibe on another. Just before midnight, Robinow achieves the highest compliments from Miller, who tags his sorta-jazzy, sorta-Latin style for a song "very Romancing the Stone."
Movie references are all over Magnificent Fiend. In another contrast to the musicians who can discuss the minutiae of fusion guitar gods with the best of the jam-band geeks, Miller looked to blockbusters from Armageddon ("That part when Bruce Willis knows he's never coming back") to Ghostbusters to summon the right emotional resonance. Those clues point to the populist nature of Howlin Rain's music, even if you can't hear them outright. Where Comets on Fire's appeal was in confronting fans with a shit-ton of distortion, Howlin Rain offers a more melodic — and accessible — alternative. "Howlin Rain music is music for emotions like joy and sorrow, not necessarily testing the limits of musical artistry," he says.
And yet Howlin Rain still contains an essential edge, a core of conflictions where more mainstream acts compress down the contrasts. These aren't simple Black Crowes ballads. And the songs are still a bit long for KFOG's Acoustic Sunrise and a tad crunchy for Live 105's spit-shined aesthetic. Magnificent Fiend condenses the struggle among good, evil, and otherwise — one that's been repeated from the Bible down on through Michael Douglas movies — into one of 2008's most essential records. And if Rick Rubin has anything to do with it, rock 'n' roll will only get more complicated from here. Or so we can hope.