[sic] Magazine

Howling Bells @ East Village Arts Club, Liverpool – 31st May 2014

Midway through tonight’s set Juanita Stein, singer and guitarist of Howling Bells, makes an announcement. “I can’t believe it’s nearly ten years since we were in this city recording our first album. We’ve got great memories of that time.” That fantastic, self-titled release was recorded in 2005 at Parr Street Studio, a mere stone’s throw from tonight’s venue.

Fast forward to tonight and, with fourth album Heartstrings out this week, Howling Bells are back in the neighbourhood. This time it’s to showcase new material, a new bass player (Gary Daines), and renewed optimism since taking a recent break for Stein’s step into motherhood. With their second and third albums (2008’s Radio Wars and 2011’s The Loudest Engine) both seeing diminishing public interest it is little surprise that tonight’s set largely bypasses songs from either. And, unfortunately, little surprise either that there are so few in attendance.

After a subdued start, with new tracks ‘Paris’ and ‘Possessed’ opening the show, Stein invites the audience – which does not trouble triple-figures in number – to move closer to the stage. Invitation accepted. The band and crowd seem more relaxed, the early material subsequently sounding better than ever. The guitars on ‘Velvet Girl’ are dirty and deliciously un-velvety. For tonight’s highlight, ‘A Ballad for the Bleeding Hearts’, there is a slow, almost loose, feel to Glen Moule’s drums and Daines’ bass, reverb-soaked guitar eating up the empty spaces in the room perfectly. Meanwhile, Juanita Stein’s vocal tip-toes through the verses before emphatically bellowing out the crescendo: “And I will wait for this moment to come around / And I will scream just to get you to hold me down”.

New songs ‘Original Sin’ and ‘Your Love’ continue this revived performance, Juanita’s brother Joel adding a haunting twist with his whirring guitar E-Bow. This sound manifests gloriously into Radio Wars track ‘Nightingale’, replacing the 80s synth-pop of the recorded version. Momentum is lost when Juanita Stein almost apologetically informs the crowd that she is to sing the next song, ‘Paper Heart’, solo and to a backing track. A panel of TV talent show judges, the image of which this awkward moment undoubtedly conjures up, would not be impressed with the piano ballad that follows her pressing ‘Play’.

Luckily, the full Howling Bells complement soon return and quickly resume where they left off; ‘Cities Burning Down’ has more gusto tonight than on record and ‘Setting Sun’ once again reminds us of the glories of that debut. ‘Wilderness’ (the only track played from The Loudest Engine) sounds out of place, while ‘Low Happening’ – surely the more considered, intelligent sibling of Gossip‘s ‘Standing in the Way of Control’, is as contagious as ever despite lacking some of the usual bite. The set then ends disappointingly, edging into soft-rock territory on new song ‘Reverie’.

The band return for a one-song encore, a stomping version of ‘Broken Bones’, the sixth song from their debut record played tonight – an album that has truly aged well. Upon leaving the show the tour bus is sighted outside on the corner of Parr Street. Literally and spiritually it seems Howling Bells are back where their career began, seemingly aware of their career’s best songs and sound. Let’s hope it is not a fleeting visit in either sense.