Jagwar Ma's debut album, Howlin, takes the listener on a trip back through the alternative rock of the '90s, making stops along the way to delve into shoegaze, baggy dance jams, spaced-out psychedelic dream pop, bedroom electronic, and even the much maligned big beat sound. The genius move the duo makes is that when they come back from their trip they only brought back the good parts and none of the elements like "Funky Drummer" breakbeats or grunge guitars that would have dated the project. Instead, Howlin sounds both like a really, really good modern pop album and a brilliant update of the '90s which, had it been released in 1992, would have knocked some sense into groups like Happy Mondays and Chapterhouse. Back then, the chief architect of the group's sound, Jono Ma, would have been hailed as an innovator and borderline genius; vocalist Gabriel Winterfield would have been in demand as a collaborator for every dance music producer in the game; and the record's mixer, Ewan Pearson, would have been buried under a deluge of requests for his magic touch. In 2013, all those things should happen too, as all three combine to make something very special. Howlin is full of inventive sounds and super-hooky pop songs, with little moments of surprising beauty and breezy fun sprinkled throughout the record too. Whether bouncing happily on rubbery beats ("That Loneliness"), sinking into some murky funk ("The Throw"), hitting the dancefloor for a hip house workout ("Four"), doing their best to rehabilitate big beat clichés ("Man I Need"), or writing an almost painfully pretty electronic ballad to close out the record ("Backwards Berlin"), the group keeps listeners on their toes and in their happy place. The variety of styles the group tries on for size is surprising to be sure, but what's truly impressive is that they nail everything they try and, more importantly, give everything a consistent feel that makes every track sound like a Jagwar Ma track first and foremost. That's not easy for a band to do, but these guys make it sound like it was no big deal. They have enough musical skill, production smarts, and melodic grace to make you forget this is their first album. Howlin is good enough to make you forget most of the bands they were influenced by too, as it both embraces and somehow transcends the '90s in a flash of sound and vision.
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AllMusic Review by Tim Sendra