Rose and the Howling North
With a ambitious scope and concept, Leeds-based artists delivers a Tarrantino-esque soundtrack wonderpiece.
Album ‘Cuckoo’ is available now from
Single ‘Cuckoo’ is available via
Too much fascinating music, is hidden askance a muddy quagmire…
making it practically impossible to uncover. Through sleight of hand and pure dumb luck, one often stumbles upon some of the most special music they will ever hear. The mainstream, or what is deemed ‘popular’, is prefabricated to fit a distinctly round hole. It is okay if you are a round peg, but, if you even have a modicum of innovation or range, success and mass appeal can be hard to come about. Every Mercury Prize winner or ‘Next Big Thing’, never, initially, grabs the media’a attention, nor that of the general public at large. If you want to reappropriate the wisdom of crowds and perform a coup against the likes of One Direction and Ke$ha, then you need to get the word out to as many people as possible. Social media has been instrumental in helping a few deserving souls, but it shouldn’t be serendipity that one discovers such huge talent.
This is where Rosie Doonan, A.K.A Rose and the Howling North fit in. They are fresh from the prodigious and beautifully stocked stables of Leeds-based record label Cuckoo Records. They are home to a wonderful array of hot young talent. I have been lucky enough to have reviewed Swing/Jazz sensation Little Violet. Also present at the Cuckoo campaign is Swing/Boogie Era sensation Cisse Renwick– who is also Rosie’s sister. Rosie is a more experienced musician, and has been straw-polling and editing her manifesto for a long time now. She is a flame-haired siren with a powerful voice, but don’t expect any comparisons with Florence Welch. Rosie is a more ambitious and fertile musician, as I discovered after listening to the debut album.
It is with a cheeky smile that Better Days presents itself. With what promises to be a musical Redomptorist from the get-go, the track has evocations of Bernard Herrman and his work on the Kill Bill features. The intro will be instantly recognisable, as it has a cocky guitar swagger to its opening seconds. You can imagine Uma Thurman walking out of a dusty, putrid saloon, flanked by bearded recidivists, samurai sword in hand, and blood between her teeth. The album’s cover is presented like a movie poster, our heroine staring you down, straddling astride the footnote credits; which neatly introduces her co-stars. The intro, in a way also has hints of hard-edged country rock as well. Rosie’s vocal enters the scene, and is a smooth, seductive vixen. She has shades of Eva Cassidy to her lower notes, and has mellow hints of jazz and blues legends, such as Billie Holiday. Our opening scene sees Rose back with the Howling North, toothpick between her teeth, walking from prison, meagre possessions in hand. “If I feel cornered/If I feel fooled” is sung with intently assignation and is filled with intent. The song has delicious transversion and epic sweeps. Before soon, the vocals rise and are multiple as “There’s a change around our hearts” is projected as if sung by a choir. There is Aretha Franklin-like soul and force in the vocal and is at once purring, and the next awash with gospel finesse and reverence. She is testifying and imploring the skies to bring her sunshine, as the chorus is repeated to stunning emotional affect as the percussion propels, and a distorted fuzz of electric guitar, creates a metaphorical rain. The song is atmospheric and cinematic, and with hints of Welch to some of the vocals, it has a chart-worthy appeal but supersedes any expectations in its simple effectiveness. Quite a stirring and epic opener. 9.7
There is a mood shift for scene number 2. Things are calmer, and with an intro that has whispers of ‘Apple Blossom’ by The White Stripes, it shakes off any White comparisons with a thudding percussive beat that blends with guitar splendidly. Rose and the Howling North promised something Kill Bill-esque and huge and they have a awe-inspiring knack for creating scenes and images in your head with just a few notes. The narrative is more of a 2nd person, and recalls a tale of a girl that should have been making waves, but “the waves are moving too fast”. From its punchy opening moments, with a Blues Rock feel, transcends into Soul and Blues, with the intro repeated. There is a great call-and-response between the vocal and music during the verses. It has funk, rhythm and a beautiful kick to it. Lyrically, the mood seems to be one of judgement. The song talks about a girl who is never satisfied and “all the things she could have tasted” have passed her by, and her broken soul lays in pieces. Rosie stands over the weeping girl, shaking her head, and walking from the trailer park, and into her muscle car, tyres screeching. Our movie is rolling and our heroine is cutting people down to size and keeps rolling forward. It is a gloriously assured 1-2, and I am amazed at how confident, tight and polished the song is. It is like the band have been playing this number for decades. I adored it, and is could see it cropping up in a big Tarrantino film very soon. Imagine the music video one could come up with; would like to pitch an idea myself! 9.8
Scene 3, and it is the title track, and victim number 2 is going being honed and hunted down. The track opens with a simple strum and has a Nancy Sinatra feel to it. It militates a wealth of mood and is sweat-bleak. It has comparisons with ‘Bang Bang’ , and has a similar crepuscular skin to it. There has been press written about the track, and it has been played on BBC 6 Music and many radio stations, garnering massive positive reviews, and perhaps appropriately, has sent Twitter aflutter over ‘Cuckoo’. Its modus opeandi- set a mood, and take your mind to a far off place, works brilliantly. Its familiar sound and destined-for-soundtracks confidence and quality has you hooked straight away. The credits have started, and the infectious chorus bounces forth as the camera pans across an old bar, tracking our protagonist as she makes her way to a cellar and turns on a light. On a table are photographs of hated enemies, as she puts a cross over 2 photos, and smiles. The chorus has a spring and dance, and onomatopoeic sweep in its feet and the repetition “An old cuckoo/an old cuckoo/(that) fell into my room” is infectious and provocative, and employs Gothic and wind-swept imagery throughout. The idea here is that a former beau arrived like a rarely-seen bird, had a primal and ecumenical effect on her and just departed, never to be seen again, leaving out heroine glum and heartbroken. The camera moves and we pan up through the floorboards to outside the bar, as Rose and the band hit the dirty trail, with intent and revenge in their heart as the sun sets. The vocal becomes electric and ecstatic after the 2/3 mark and has a veracious and powerful prowess, becoming almost strangulated in its passion and intensity. The band are up to the task, and instead of restraining our leading lady, egg her on and support her brilliantly, enveloping the track with a haunted and hypnotic bait and switch, that will put a smile on your face. No drop in quality; this thing is on! 9.7
Now we are aware of the meat of the plot, the apropos ‘Changes’ take us into the first night, as our heroine is pensive and in a reflective mood. There is a great guitar sound to the intro, again recalling Herrman, but with a Western, sand-tinged sound. It twangs and flexes, and sets its own scene: city streets, lovers hand-in-hand and bright lights. Our heroine is thinking of her man and admits: “Oh darling/This bed is made for two/But I’m lonely without you”, but says that she is through with him. There is a cheeky nod to David Bowie’s track of the same name, when, in the chorus, she stutters the ‘c’ to ‘changes’, with a sly wink. It is an infects and memorable track, and there are patterns of Kate Bush to the vocal as well as K.T. Tunstall. The mood is more reserved, but the theme is probably the most personal and sensitive yet. Rose and the Howling North know how to balance an album and keep you hooked. To my ears the band is the star here, and it is the blend of different guitar sounds, and propellant and soul-soothing percussion, that keeps the song compelling throughout. Their concision and talent is displayed wonderfully during the track’s coda, and leaves you wanting more and more from this song. 9.0
The morning rises and a new day begins as ‘Shame on Me’ plays. It has personal touches as well, and is perhaps the most romantic and delicate tracks, our protagonist playing the role of curvaceous chanteuse. The song begins calmly and tear-stained: “Take a measure to the bed/That we won’t lie in”. It is a gorgeous vocal display, reminiscent of Kate Bush, Beth Gibbons and conveys a cut-glass soprano that can melt hearts. Just then a drum thuds- and again. There is a sprinkle of piano that reminds me of Jack White’s ‘Blunderbuss’. The sharp mood change has hallmarks of ‘Third’-era Portishead and a ghostly, howling wind blows in the background; combined, creating a heady and intoxicating sound. The interloper and villain has entered the room, and things could well get very tense. The track was probably made to soundtrack a film, reassembling parts James Bond, part Kill Bill and has pretensions to join the great all-time themes- it is already better than Oscar-winning ‘Skyfall’! The chorus swells; a wild cacophony of emotion and sound; with a mix of double-tracked vocals, electric swells and a percussive crescendo; the halfway mark notes a sea change. The mood intensifies and the vocal emotion ratchets up to a good 8.5. It has picked the mood up from ‘Changes’ and danger, once more lurks. 9.2
With a lilting strum that put my mind back to the early ’90s and Jeff Buckley’s ‘Live at Sin-e’ album, ‘Rest Easy’, sets a fresh scene during a new day for our assassin-in-waiting. Perhaps this talk of bleeding hearts and lost romance has made her reborn, and she is dreaming of a quieter life? The vocal has a slight distorted, which gives it a far-off sound and makes it sound more ghostly than the intro would suggest. The lyrics paint homely images: “Our second-hand bed/Our self-built shed”. Once again, the album has a purely tender heart, and you will imagine yourself in a coffee shop on the Lower East Side of New York, listening to this track, as the rain beats down outside. In our movie schematic, enough wounds have been created so far, and our heroine is resting, thinking about the future. The vocal is a cross between Nancy Sinatra and Buckley in tone and tenderness and shares a lot with Bob Dylan as well: not just the guitar strum and sound (which sounds like a ‘lost’ track from ‘Blood on the Tracks’) but the lyrics as well, share his talent for fusing obliqueness and directness into the same verse. To my mind it is the most beautiful track on the album, and at the half-way mark, provides a resting spot in a romantic shade, and leaves you wondering just what the next track will bring… 9.4
Okay then, we are back in the Corvette, as victim number 3; whom perhaps had ideas of a long happy life, is forced to redress their naive mind and asses their lot. A bit of ‘Stripes, a little ‘Songs for the Deaf’-Queens of the Stone Age there, is how the ambitious ‘Cherry Ride’ begins. The title I guess is appropriate to my analogy thus far, and glad I am on the same page as the band! It is quite a transmogrification, given what had come before, but such is the nature of the beast, nothing can be predicted. It is a huge scorpion with a stinging tale. Before you envisage a storm brewing, the mood is sedates and becomes a tune with a flavour of Boogie and groups like The Andrews Sisters. There are blasts of horns, at once jubilant, the next, composed; sparks of ‘Lullabies to Paralyse’-epoch Queens of the Stone Age; fuzzy and gin-soaked. It is an admirable cohabitation; modern mixing with vintage. The words are simply effective: “Tears fall down these rosy cheeks” and heartfelt: “I need you”, but convey a direct honest and longing. The journey continues and the track has all the atmosphere of a truncated road trip; one of reflection, eventfulness, but also fun. There is trouble afoot, but for the moment, there is a smile and the sun is shining on the open road. 9.1
The lovely little intro is at first Jake Bugg; then The Rolling Stones, with a bit of Led Zeppelin. It manages to pack a lot of intrigue and potential into such a short space. ‘Demands’ has a slight country twang to it, and has a very contemporary and fresh sound to it. Whilst a lot of the album’s tracks share D.N.A with the past, here the song is a 21st century creation. The percussion rolls and the mood is always up and propulsive. It is a short track as well, and leaves you wanting more, but says all it needs to say at the same time. 8.9
‘All These Years’ gets out heroine back on the reflective trail: “These days washed away the pain”. There is still an aching heart beating, and, again, is quite a soft, romantic track. The vocal is soulful and full of conviction. Again it is quite a modern track and shares similarlitys with Emile Sande and Jessie Ware in its lyrical themes and vocal delivery. Towards the end of the track there is a repeated lyric: “The boy don’tlie/Tell me you needed me”. It builds and builds and has a hypnotic sway to it that will grab you. 9.0
Taking us down to land, and ending the movie, plans of a rampage have ended, as real life and praticality have gripped out leading lady. ‘Time to Leave’ is a sad and emotional end. With spatterings of Eva Cassidy again in the vocal; especiaslly ‘Over the Rainbow’, it is a wistful and aching track: “I pushed for your love/And now that we’re through”. Our heroine is looking back and looking on and tells how she has put up with so much. You are hooked into the sublime vocal and simple strummed backing, and it will have quite an affect on you. It is a wonderful end to the album, and who would have guessed that it would end like this. It shows what a range and bag of tricks Rose and the Howling North has. 9.3
The credits are rolling, but our masterpiece has another tale to tell, in the form of bonus track ‘Glory Girl’. It is a spine-tingling and haunting, and fits under the banner of the Kill Bill diatribe and the movie arc. Spirits from the past and memories are flooding back and the vocal is delicate and Sintra-like. There is a pop sensibility, albeit it at the top of its game. It rises and falls and is an emotional number. “Oh Glory Girl/Take me home” is its most repeated message and the atmopshere ends quite upbeat and definat. Bonus tracks can often ressemble a bit of a mess. A tossed off idea or half-finished flyweight in need of a home. ‘Glory Girl’ shows just how many ideas Rose and the Howling North has. It is strong and beautiful and infuses their romantic astehe with energy and diversity. The song is a great way to bring evrything to a conclusion and it will be intriguing to see how this album will be bettered when the sophmore effort is produced. 9.3
So then…what an album! It started with quite a bang and you think that you are in for a Kill Bill thrill ride of blood, guts and action; it mutates into a tense and nervy thriller, before ending with romance and longing. It is a testament to the band, and the range of influences that they have, that they have created such a terrific opus. There are a lot of positives oin display. Rose’s vocal is superlative. She can go from a delicate soprano, to the bellow of a soul queen, right through to a solid rock performance. It is quite a feat and not one that is going to have too mnany equals. The songwriting is mature and intelligent, as well as incensive and varied. There is no clumsy hyperbole or vaugness, and simplicty is blended with mixed metaphors and vivid scene-setting lines. The band as well are close to stealing the show. They bring life to each song and demonstrate a wealth of talkent and innovation, creating an orchestral epic sweep to the first few tracks, and a romantic soulful edge to the latter tracks. The entire album gripped me, and had never heard of Rose and the Howling North until recently. I am proud that they are English and shows what talent this country can produce when you look away from talent show dirge. It is a bold and brave call to say that an album can have filmic proportions, and that you could ever picture scenes to go with the songs, and make it cojent, consistent and gripping. This has been acheived with aplomb and many of the tracks could easily score a huge budget film, and wouldn’t be surprised if many of them did in the future.
If there are negatives, it is constructive. I think the album may be a bit front loaded. Whether this is to make a huge impression early on, or is just a part of a wider plan, I am not sure. I am a bigger fan of the bigger, more energetic numbers, and these are all in the first third of the album. There seems to be a bit of an emotional lull towards the middle of the album. The tracks are spellbinding, but you are so drained after track 3 that you need an energy boost about 3 or 4 tracks on. Perhaps placing the title track further down the mix would acheived that. I would also like to see the band incorporating more symphonic elements. They have a seemingly limitless bag of talent, and a few more strings and larger sound would emphasise sonme of the numbers. Whether this is a plan for a future release I am not sure, but would be nice to hear more strings and orchestra.
If you haven’t seeked out Rose and the Howling North then do so. I am baffled why a band of such magnitude have been kept a secret. The media and public in general need to start looking towards bands and acts like this, because they have the legs to be standing many years from now. I am a fully fledged fan of Rose’ and have been staggered by the quality and originality of their music. They have come from seemingly nowehere…
… and have made one of the best, and certainly the most fascinating album of 2013.
Key Tracks: ‘Better Days’, ‘Broken Souls’, ‘Cuckoo’ & ‘Time to Leave’.
Cuckoo Records (Official):
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