There are certain expectations that come along with using the word “howling” in your band name, none of which are fulfilled by Aussie four-piece Howling Bells. This isn’t to say that Radio Wars is a bad album—it features plenty of bouncy, vaguely atmospheric pop rock songs that fall somewhere between the chiming guitar leads of ’90s Britpop and the buzzy synth-rock of Metric. Vocalist Juanita Stein is, in particular, a dead ringer for Emily Haines, and spends most of the collection sounding like she’s trying to recreate Old World Underground, Where Are You Now? She almost succeeds, but the tunes are hampered by her often heavy-handed lyrics. “Golden Web” drives its man-as-spider metaphor into the ground, while opener “Treasure Hunt” features the pompous group-sung refrain “We are the watchtowers / We are the light that emanates / We are the key that fits / We are the world that radiates.”
Howling Bells are best when at their least affected. “Ms. Bell’s Song” is a refreshingly straightforward mid-tempo acoustic strummer with chord changes that subtly shift the mood from dark to light. The album finishes with a secret track placed four minutes after the final song ends (’90s style, back when people listened to CDs!). It’s unclear why it was relegated to an afterthought since the song features a hypnotic electro groove and Stein’s most poignantly bleak lyrics, “It’s another lonely Monday.” Howling Bells would be well served to always follow this blueprint of simplicity.