When Howlin Rain released Mansion Songs in 2015 as the first part of the proposed "Mansion" trilogy, leader Ethan Miller and his ever-changing cast of musicians were playing largely acoustic roots music. The Alligator Bride is the second part of that project; its sound is of an entirely different variety. This record is Howlin Rain through the looking glass of the earlier album. For starters, it's electric as hell. While roots music is not absent, there's a different M.O. at work: This is Howlin Rain as a full-on rock & roll animal, reflecting deeply on the ragged-ass rock of Crazy Horse, the swampy R&B-drenched, country-gospel of Eric Clapton with Delaney and Bonnie, the humid slide guitar blues rock of the James Gang, and even the exploratory boogie of the Grateful Dead.
As usual, Miller -- on lead guitar and vocals -- has changed his cast entirely. Only his co-producer Eric Bauer remains. The rest are Daniel Cervantes on pedal steel and guitar, Jeff McElroy on bass and harmony vocals, and Justin Smith on drums and percussion. The Alligator Bride was, like its predecessor, cut at San Francisco's Mansion Studios. Its feel is immediate, unapologetic, and raw, and this band gels in their dedication to looseness. All seven songs were cut live from the floor in one or two takes sans overdubs. The loose feel is at once sweeping and intimate, as Miller spins out tunes that depict an America as both eternal myth and present-day ghost, haunting the frames of its own narrative through its citizens and observers. Kicking this off is the strolling, John Lee Hooker-esque boogie intro to "Rainbow Trout," which swells via slide and steel guitars and cracking, just-behind-the-beat snares, kick drums, and a simple bassline into a spiraling groove and clashing, screaming, distorted six-string breaks. Miller calls this "Neal Cassady Rock," and in its unhinged look at freedom and restlessness, it's easy to see why. By contrast, in "Missouri" and the title track, the band evoke the Crazy Horse spirit in spades by willing themselves into overdrive. Miller's singing is passionate, reaching for something just out of his grasp. The guitar interplay between him and Cervantes is tumultuous but complementary and consonant. "The Wild Boys" is the set's centerpiece. Titled for a William S. Burroughs novel, Miller's lyric lifts elements from the writer's life, and touches on themes from the book, even as the entire proceeding depicts the slippage between purposeful movement and random transience. It starts as basic country-rock before transforming itself into something altogether more jagged and propulsive. Closer "Coming Down" is an epic, with a dynamic spiral beyond its laid-back intro into orgiastic guitar craziness with delectable vocal harmonies added for ballast. The Alligator Bride is louder and prouder than Mansion Songs, but it's also somehow more relaxed, as if there is nothing to prove. Hopefully, Miller will keep this rocking line-up together for the foreseeable future.