It is likely that no record in Howlin’ Wolf’s discography is as controversial and polarizing as his 1969 psychedelic effort, The Howlin’ Wolf Album (or, as it is titled on the stark cover: This is Howlin’ Wolf’s new album. He doesn’t like it. He didn’t like his electric guitar at first either). Long ravaged by blues critics, listeners, and the Wolf himself (who called it ‘dogs****’), The Howlin’ Wolf Album has been out of print for many years. Its recent reissue by Get On Down records begs the question: is it really ‘dogs****’ as the titular artist claimed, or is it a hidden gem in the Howlin’ Wolf discography?
In my opinion, The Howlin’ Wolf Album is closer to the former rather than the latter, and listening to the record, it is quite obvious why the Wolf and his fans dismissed the album (besides producer Marshall Chess’s assertion that the negativity in the album title undermined its sales). Although the album consists of remakes of the Wolf’s well-known hits, the psychedelic interpretations bear little resemblance to the originals. Even with the adventurous arrangements, most of the songs sound similar to each other, and the effect is quite monotonous in the end. Furthermore, the tempos lack the rhythmic quirkiness of Howlin’ Wolf’s classic works, and tend to drag after a while. And don’t get me started on the uninspired instrumentation with fuzzed-out electronics, guitars, and plodding drums prominent in the mix!
That being said, The Howlin’ Wolf Album is not without its merits. Musicians as diverse as John Paul Jones (Led Zeppelin), Jack White (The White Stripes), and Chuck D have found value in the psychedelic works of Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, and deservedly so. Howlin’ Wolf’s voice and personality cut through the busy mix on almost every track, and his spoken introductions on “Tail Dragger” and “Back Door Man” are a valuable insight into the background of the album and the man's personality. Although he is unfortunately buried in the mix, you can still occasionally hear Hubert Sumlin’s intricate guitar work, which is always a pleasure. Additionally, some of the Wolf’s songs actually sound good in a psychedelic blues-rock context. The flute-and-bass led psychedelic rendition of “Smokestack Lightning” is as hypnotic as the original, and possibly even more haunting. “The Red Rooster” has an almost funk-rock feel to it, which works well; I hear similarities between this track and “I Got Your Number” from Guitar Shorty’s 2006 album We The People. Unlike the rest of the album, the concluding track “Back Door Man” refreshingly has a traditional blues rhythm and the acid-influenced sounds are kept to a minimum while the Wolf proclaims how he ‘eats more chicken [than] any man seen’ and Sumlin responds with spiky lead guitar.
While it’s not a misunderstood masterpiece, it’s not ‘dogs****’ either. The Howlin’ Wolf Album is worth checking out if you enjoy Howlin’ Wolf and/or psychedelic blues-influenced music. However, despite the title, this is not THE Howlin’ Wolf album to check out if you want to hear what the Wolf did best and see why he was/is so revered by music fans.