Brave Little Howl’s brand new ‘Neola Gold’ already feels like an old friend
The latest album from BLH was worth the wait
Brave Little Howl’s newest record, Neola Gold, is their first full-length album in more than four years, but that doesn’t mean BLH hasn’t been busy.
In 2020, they released a unique and intimate album, Live From Big Thicket, that was, well, recorded live at Travis Wright’s Big Thicket cabin on White Rock Lake. That year, they also released a cover of Radiohead’s “Exit Music (For A Film)” and the single “Beautiful Girl” with Frankie Leonie that helped capture some of the heartrending melancholy of the pandemic. And lead singer Bill Hale serenaded those of us stuck at home with Blaze Foley and Modest Mouse covers.
Add the delay of said pandemic, a new band member and drummer Cory Phifer recovering from an ankle injury and… you get the point. It’s been a minute, for good reason.
Neola Gold is worth the wait.
If you’ve been lucky enough to catch the band at one of their performances in Dallas/Fort Worth, you know BLH is best consumed live. Despite often being crowded together on stage among snaking wires and a forest of mic stands, the sextet can work each other into a frenzy of percussion, yelps and reverberating, melodic noise.
While Brave Little Howl hits those high points on Neola Gold, this is a contemplative, bittersweet album, a 10-song ode to something important slowly falling apart.
“You’ll be in Malibu in a year or two…” are the encouraging first words from the album, but by the midway point, BLH is taking a deep breath. “Tonight I’m going straight, forget my evil ways and find a better way back to you,” is the band’s promise on the fourth track, “Ballad.”
“If you pick up the phone, we can work it out,” Hale sings plaintively a few minutes later, but who is he convincing? By the album’s finale, there’s no going back: “Boys, boys, this looks like the end.”
BLH isn’t shy about its adoration for Wilco: beyond just sonic inspiration, the band provides the name of Neola Gold’s seventh track. And it’s not a stretch to assume the album’s finale, “Wicker Park,” is also inspired by the Chicago neighborhood’s Wilco connection. It’s safe to say Jeff Tweedy fans would embrace Brave Little Howl with open arms.
“BLH is for everyone!” is a common message from the band, however, and it’s true there’s a lot more going on: Neola Gold features a rich, complex sound, from Joshua Miller’s sometimes haunting, sometimes chorale piano and organ to Marc Atkinson’s layered, discordant guitar to Phifer’s driving beats (which are filled out with Northeast Texas music veteran Cole Risner’s bass), all tied together by Hale’s versatile delivery. Clay Friddle is the band’s Swiss army knife, adding additional vocals, percussion, guitar and xylophone.
Richer upon each repeat listen, Neola Gold packs its own cathartic premise, that the beginning of the end can also, maybe, be the beginning of something new.