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Ethan Miller's had a pretty tough time of it lately, following the release of The Russian Wilds things have been a little rough for Howlin' Rain. If you've heard this before feel free to skip ahead but if not, pick up a seat. Recently, Howlin' Rain became a one man band, left their record label and had no obvious path. From there, Miller recorded three albums worth of songs driven by his exhaustion with the music business and generally detailing that particularly period in his life. Mansion Songs is the first of the trilogy and it's certainly a good entry.

Strangely, given the potentially depressing nature of the backstory, Mansion Songs has a tone that is anything but sombre, in fact for the most part it's positively joyful. The album has a bright quality; the songs sound joyous and optimistic. Miller has said this is the first album in a trilogy and documents his time at rock bottom, but rather than detailing the descent to rock bottom we're already there and where do the majority look while at rock bottom? Forward. That's what Mansion Songs seems to be, one man's journal on how he copes with being at rock bottom and where he's going from there.

Musically, Mansion Songs bears all the hallmarks of a typical Howlin' Rain album, a big helping of Americana with a whole load of soul thrown in, except this time the back story adds a little extra. At times Mansion Songs is so delicate it almost isn't there and that lends a feeling of reflectiveness to proceedings, and that's probably apt; we're all at our most reflective when things are peaceful and quiet and it's always a joy when an artist uses every tool at his disposal to put his feelings across. Some of those delicate moments aren't just quiet and reflective, they're downright beautiful. The chorus harmonies on 'Coliseum' and 'Lucy Fairchild' are devastatingly good, stunning to the point it makes you question if those big guitars on 'Big Red Moon' and on previous albums are even necessary as Miller can clearly write something fantastic with not much at his disposal. There's also a fair amount of traditional sounding music on Mansion Songs, by traditional I mean a few steps even further back than Americana and that seems symbolic; it's as if by stripping the music back to a roots level Miller is showing the listener exactly what he had to do when everything seemed to be crumbling around him to carry on with what he wanted to do, back to basics to focus on the songs and the things that really mattered to keep Howlin' Rain going.

Mansion Songs gives me a good feeling about where Howlin' Rain are heading on the next two albums. There doesn't appear to be any obvious blueprint to Mansion Songs, no falling back onto gloomy, depressive music to convey events that had befallen Ethan Miller. Instead, it's a mixture hope, emotion and reflection with music that places a rather large emphasis on brightness rather than darkness. If the next two albums are going to document Miller's rise from rock bottom I'm intrigued as to how he's going to do that when there's a great deal of what seems to be optimism already about. That's exciting and it all comes from how good and honest Mansion Songs is.

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