Jagwar Ma “Howlin” – Album Review

As a proud Englishman, I have to say I am confused. Australian dance-rock outfit Jagwar Ma have delivered one of the best debut albums of 2013 and it has tripped some synapses, crossed wires in my brain and left me a quivering mess. Before you think that I’m exploiting one of the worst journalistic clichés in history i.e. recommending being stoned or at the very least half-cut before enjoying any record with even the slightest sprinkle of the psychedelic, rest easy, I am not. I should explain, every few summers, an intense rivalry passed on to many an English lad through the generations spreads across this land like a rash, developed from being dealt repeated cricketing hurt by the Aussies in The Ashes.

I am confused because despite defeat after defeat at their hands, we’ve somehow learned to love our cousins in the Antipodes now and who can blame us? It’s not just that we’ve beaten our old foes quite consistently in recent years, though it helps, Australia is undoubtedly producing some of the best new music around. Tame Impala, Empire of the Sun as well as upcoming acts Battleships, Lowlakes, Bad//Dreems are here with Jagwar Ma to tell us there’s a lot more going on Down Under than just lingering memories of the Lord’s crowd cheerily crowing Waltzing Matilda.

Comprising vocalist and guitarist Gabriel Winterfield and synthesizer boffin Jono Ma, Jagwar Ma play sunny harmony-infused rock blended with elements of electronic and dance music that at its best resembles a glorious mélange of The Stone Roses, 13th Floor Elevators, The Horrors and The Chemical Brothers circa Surrender. It really is as good as that sounds. Their diverse range of influences is palpable across the album yet Jagwar Ma are able to take the sounds of their favourite records from every era, make them their own and never sound like anything but themselves.

That Howlin’ is as good a record as it is will come as no surprise to those who caught the two singles The Throw and Man I Need. Those tracks are still as effervescent as they were when they first dropped earlier this year. The Throw, in particular still stands out as the single which generated so much hype surrounding Jagwar Ma, earning them the patronage of Noel Gallagher among others. It features the catchiest melody on the record accompanied by the chants of a cult chorus, a tribal rhythm that has somehow been mistaken for baggy and an extended outro of insistent pulsing synths. It will be the perfect tonic at festivals or more accurately, to paraphrase Jarvis Cocker, for leaving an important part of your brain somewhere in a field in Hampshire. Fortunately, after being forced to cancel some UK tour dates due to illness, Jagwar Ma are currently in the midst of re-scheduled headlines slots across Europe and will make their potentially career-making debut at Glastonbury at the end of June.

The duo pre-empt the inevitable remix by transforming tracks like What Love and Come Save Me into heavily synthesized dance-y codas as their songs build to their natural crescendos. It’s a neat trick that borrows heavily from Andrew Weatherall’s production work with Primal Scream on Screamadelica, Howlin’s nearest sonic antecedent. On that record, Weatherall sought to merge the 1980s trend of the 12” remix with the looseness and sense of fun of ‘70s jam bands like Grateful Dead. Jagwar Ma’s efforts to re-create that formula are probably the best approximation of that oft-copied-never-bettered seminal album, with the group’s own spin, mixing in more influences like the 1960s experimental production of Joe Meek and Shadow Morton on That Loneliness and Let Her Go and alternative electronic music like Animal Collective on Four.

Attempts to fuse genres are often dodgy even at their most listenable, here Jagwar Ma’s blending of alternative rock and dance crucially never sounds like a rock band that have recorded an album and then hired a dance producer to remix it for them. With most pairings in music e.g. Simon & Garfunkel, Pet Shop Boys etc., unless they’re an especially inscrutable example such as Daft Punk, it is often easy to discern who is responsible for what. Just as in those famous twosomes, Ma and Winterfield’s contributions both gel to create a cohesive sound from start to finish. There are however still two sides to Jagwar Ma to be heard on Howlin’.

The album adheres to the thematic divide once typical of the vinyl era; the first half of the record is dedicated to upbeat dance jams featuring the kind of Ian Brown- or Richard Ashcroft-like shamanistic nonsense normally associated with psychedelic music. Let Her Go signals a tonal shift at the halfway mark, beginning with a gentle strum reminiscent of Sugar Magnolia by the Grateful Dead before lyrics addressed to a girl who has caught Winterfield’s eye, possibly of the sort commonly found in the sky with diamonds, reveal a more emotional side to the band. The refrain in penultimate track Did You Have To? of “You don’t know how it feels to know you” is a heartbreakingly earnest sentiment that comes completely unexpected from the same band that made The Throw.

In short, Howlin’ is an electrifying debut that is sure to light up the summer of 2013. Jagwar Ma have made an album that updates and revitalises tired production tricks and unfashionable rhythms through sheer audacity and force of personality that comes out on every groove of this record. Albums like this make it a heck of a lot easier to love Australia this time of year, just try not to release your next one so close to The Ashes, eh lads?

Elliott Homer