Having recently spent a month opening for Coldplay across North America, London-based Australian quartet Howling Bells are certainly well-traveled and well-equipped for arena-sized projection. They’ve previously toured Europe with the Killers and Australia with Snow Patrol, and the band’s second album yields an expansive, somewhat-retro sound that’s rife with plunging guitars, inky keys, a submerged rhythm section and Juanita Stein’s earnest yet detached vocals—bored and sultry in the same breath.
This follow-up to their 2006 self-titled debut could be filed comfortably alongside recent albums by the Sounds and Metric, looking to the cool confidence and after-hours eeriness of such ’80s mainstays as Blondie, the Cars and Pat Benatar. There’s some early U2 in the searching guitar of the lead single “Cities Burning Down,” but that’s unfortunately one of the more generic songs on Radio Wars. Much better is the yawning nostalgia of “Let’s Be Kids” and the baroque twitch of “Golden Web”: Both songs find Howling Bells willing to be a little cheesy in the name of creating a palpable mood. Elsewhere, the band enlist strings and horns that underscore songs, rather than overwhelm them.
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For all its bigness, the album makes for quite a slow, soft listen. There are a few anthems, but among them (and less expected) are the dreamy, understated “Nightingale” and the lush, Mazzy Star-ish country drone of “Ms. Bell’s Song.” The closing “How Long” is appealing largely for the unfussy posing of its rhetorical questions, as if Stein has all the time in the world before she receives an answer. Those unique details linger the most after Radio Wars has finished, though they’re better served by headphones than packed stadiums.