by Bea Willis
Howling Bells’ vocalist Juanita Stein has released a solo debut CD titled, America (Nude Records). Howling Bells is an indie rock band that formed in Sydney in 2004, but with this offering, her solo project, Stein is presenting music with less indie rock vibe, and more of a Western embracing. Stein describes the record’s lore, “I’ve forever idealized American life – growing up in Australia we were fed the American dream through film and television. The dichotomy between what was real and a dream is forever intriguing to me.”
America was produced by Gus Seyffert (Beck, Ryan Adams) in Los Angeles and the sonic quality of the CD is perfect. Stein is a master songwriter, her ability to tell stories through her lyrics, that I might add are believable and full of emotion, are supported by a sound that is exceptional. The eleven tracks on the CD will keep you enthralled with Stein’s sweet nonchalant voice and strong backing band.
“Florence” begins the storytelling, starting with a strumming acoustic guitar paired with a clean electric guitar with a vibrato effect on it that screams, this is the west and you are now in cowboy land. The song pulls inspiration from Florence Owens Thompson who was the subject of Dorothea Lange’s famous photo Migrant Mother (1936), an iconic image of the Great Depression. The lyrics capture both the strength of the women and a socioeconomic snapshot of the American dream in jeopardy, but still full of hope.
“Dark Horse” shows Stein’s gift for capturing a perfect blend of rock & roll with earthy twang and making it sound perfectly in the present, this is the songs greatest strength and highlights Steins truest gifts. An excellent spaghetti Western lead guitar and Stein’s clear singing perfectly meld, to give the listener plenty of reasons to tune in and dig deeper into the story. Stein’s vocalizing with the guitar figure is especially sharp, and the way she delivers the chorus balances between various sections and background vocals and the counterpoint is a nice touch.
“Someone Else’s Dime” has a unique production style, with its big reverb sound on Stein’s voice, it adds to this selections sense of innocence and wonder, an ambition cleverly complemented by the stirring lead guitar work. Stein’s Westworld-styled approach to the Americana sound-scape from an Aussie that now resides as a Brit, is a worthwhile listen. Her songwriting and strong melodies still pull it off in the long run, and that is what true Americana is about, the great mixing bowl.
Stein’s adventurous solo debut America is beautifully done, her singing is full of grace and her lyrics are submersed with iconic poise. The music is well crafted around her voice and will set right at home in the mixing pot of folk, Americana, and classic rock & roll.
Tracks to sample first: “Dark Horse,” “I’ll Cry,” “Stargazer” and “Someone Else’s Dime.” The song to take a chance on is “Florence.”