Rowland S. Howard
Rowland S. Howard’s first album in 10 years is well worth the wait, writes TREVOR BLOCK.
And so, with some discreet fanfare, the new Rowland S. Howard album is finally here. It’s been all of 10 years since his last album, Teenage Snuff Film, and while he certainly hasn’t been idle since, it’s good to have something substantial to back up his recent live performances. In case you were wondering, yes, it’s well worth the wait.
With Mick Harvey (drums) and JP Shilo (bass/violin) backing his own guitar and vocals, Howard creates a series of intimate, stripped-down scenes. The overall effect is not of sparseness, more of a lack of unnecessary ornamentation. Nothing here is superfluous, and the album comes across as an exercise in mature restraint. Every line, every note seems to be precisely what’s needed to move the song along, with no time or energy wasted on needless detail. Having said that, there seems to be a switch built into these songs that Howard hits when the mood takes him. It’s usually around the chorus, where a few accented chords or maybe a key or tempo change lifts the song from the simple to the ornamental. This effect is most noticeable on second track ‘Shut Me Down’. With a touch of echo and some ringing guitar leading into the chorus (“I’m standing in a suit/As ragged as my nerves”) the mood changes from ’60s spy movie theme to something altogether richer, almost reminiscent of classic girl-group pop.
Howard doesn’t mince words either, as the dense imagery of the title track attests (“I guess that I won’t see you tomorrow”/On this, our planet of perpetual sorrows”). There’s no dumbing down here, and the effect is anything but po-faced. Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood may be part of the inspiration behind ‘(I Know A Girl Called) Jonny’ (a duet with HTRK’s Jonnine Standish), but it’s hard to imagine Sinatra singing about putting her fingers in Hazlewood’s mouth.
“Every line, every note seems to be precisely what’s needed to move the song along, with no time or energy wasted on needless detail.”
In keeping with its biblical origins (“Blessed art thou among women”), ‘Ave Maria’ is an aching love song, albeit one about love found, recognised and subsequently lost. Incidentally, ‘Wayward Man’ gives some pointers to the sort of behaviour that would cause any woman to walk out: “I do all my best thinking/Unconscious on the floor.”
There are two covers included here. Howard’s take on Talk Talk’s ‘Life’s What You Make It’ is an amazing bass-heavy monster that fits in with the tone of the album perfectly. In addition to being an excellent track in its own right, it does what a good cover version should: it shows the original in a new light and stamps a degree of personal ownership on the song. Also included here is ‘Nothin’, a strangely bitter and sardonic lament originally recorded by hard-living singer/songwriter Townes Van Zandt.
The album closes with the storming ‘The Golden Age Of Bloodshed’, which is full of graveyard wit and includes an updated list of bad omens to watch for: Catholic girls with Uzis, saints surrounded by chemical halos and “a harsh new brand of aftershave, that gives you that thousand yard stare”. As always, salvation is possible through the love of a woman.
It’s worth mentioning that Pop Crimes comes beautifully packaged, on CD and vinyl, with excellent photos by Kes Band’s Karl Scullin, among others, and a wardrobe credit for Howard to boot.
I have been listening to this man for 30 years now. And despite the 10-year gap between albums, this collection is not a return to form. He’s never lost it.
Pop Crimes is out now through Liberation Records.