Review/Listen: Jagwar Ma – Howlin

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Twenty years.

That was the amount of time between 1968 and 1988, a period that saw a kaleidoscope of sounds explode within the pop world. The late ’60s saw a mix of eastern influences enter the lives of its most revered stars. This sound in particular laid the foundation for the new wave of bands coming out of the Manchester (or “Madchester”, as the press so glibly put it) scene in 1988 and 1989. The Happy Mondays and the Stone Roses were the two most influential groups to rise out of that scene, setting the stage for Britpop which itself saw a rise to pop prowess in 1993. Now, twenty years on from ’93 comes Jagwar Ma, an Australian group that takes a bit all of those eras to create an infectious, modern sounding dance album in Howlin.

Despite those foundations, this isn’t an album stuck in the past. On the contrary, Howlin is a forward thinking record that uses those psychedelic and Eastern flourishes to complement the electronic production and beautiful harmonizing that goes on here. There’s no slow introduction, just an instant pulsating beat and a bouncy rhythm on the opener “What Love”. It’s a nice beginning for the record, taking the time to prepare the listener for what’s to come: A record that is going to get you to dance, whether you like it or not.

What’s most impressive about Howlin is how it takes its musical DNA and subtly integrates those sounds into its individual tracks. “Uncertainty” and “The Throw” continue the good times and summer vibes of “What Love”, but there’s a slight R&B influence that steps forward completely on “The Loneliness”. It’s a great song, filled with a shuffling chorus that brings to mind those Berry Gordy hits from Motown’s heyday. “Come Save Me” is filled with handclaps, girl-group backing vocals, and a rolling drumbeat that recalls the Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows”. Then the album switches gears yet again by returning to modernity with “Four”. Literally a four-on-the-floor stomper, the tune ditches any classic pretenses and goes all in as a sweaty, dance tune. It’s a great middle track, pushing the record forward into its second half.

And oh, what a second half is is. From the Britpop-derived “Let Her Go” to the brilliant “Man I Need”, there’s so much here to dig into and enjoy. “Man I Need” in particular has been paired down from its White Label version, still maintaining its swirling psychedelia and giddy chorus. Calling it a highlight would be a blow to the rest of the album; instead, it’s just another high point in a series of excellent songs.

For a young duo, Jagwar Ma is amazingly self-assured, dipping deep into pop’s back pages to create a fun record that should be the soundtrack to many a summer day. Even as it slows with “Backwards Berlin,” there’s still an infectious attitude that pierces through the darkness. Howlin is a solid debut from a duo that should be making exquisitely produced pop tunes for a long time.

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