published: 25 /
Backed by a credited band for the first time in his career, John Howard has made the natural successor to his debut album, forty years after that first release
Since 2013, singer and pianist John Howard has released two albums, an EP and a live recording. And yet, his third full-length album in three years has the feel of being one we have been waiting four decades for.
“How so?”, you ask, as well you might. At this point, I should offer apologies to those familiar with the Pennyblackmusic archives who have heard this story at least five times before. For the rest of you, it goes thus: John Howard first entered the public eye when CBS released 'Kid in a Big World' in 1975. Recorded with Tony Meehan at Abbey World, and chock-a-block with hummable tunes, it seemed a certain thing.
And yet, partly due to the inexplicable fickleness of pop and, more darkly, the music industry's obvious discomfort with an openly gay man (acceptable as a style-choice – Bowie – or as a not-well-hidden secret –Elton John, but not yet as a freely made choice), the album barely sold. Subsequent recordings went unreleased and Howard's music was forgotten by all but a few of the most dedicated record collectors. That was that, until in 2003, with the reissue market booming, 'Kid in a Big World' was reissued to rave reviews. This prompted Howard, who had spent the intervening decades working in A&R, back into live performance and then, brilliantly, into a prolific songwriting spree.
As brilliant as his recent work has been (and anyone who doesn't own 2013's 'Storeys' should make a space now – you'll need to file it under H, for 'Howard'), it has 'cult' written all over it. He has been happy to leave 'Kid in a Big World' as his only determined assault on a wider audience. Until now – with a new band (and band name!), Howard has made an album that, played back to back with 'Kid...' feels like its natural successor.
It is perhaps unfair to write the band that supported John on his 2005 comeback As I Was Saying… out of this story, but there is a difference to this collaboration – and the reason why this is the first time a band gets a credit on one of his albums. Robert Rotifer (guitars), Andy Lewis (bass – on loan from Paul Weller's band) and Ian Button (drums) are all acclaimed songwriters in their own right, and collaborate here as equals, co-writing the songs and producing. This is an album that Howard wouldn't have made on his own in his basement studio in Spain – the Beach Boys influence so prominent on his last album is almost completely jettisoned, for example.
Instead, the characters of his collaborators shine through. Anyone who has heard Andy Lewis DJ knows he has an ear for infectious 60’s pop and soul, and this album's first single 'Intact & Smiling', with music penned by Lewis, would fit seamlessly into those sets. Then, 'In the Light of Fires Burningt, with music written by Button, has the dreamy psychedelic vibe that fans of his Papernut Cambridge project will love, complete with an extended phase-out borrowed straight from the mid-nineties. A favourite moment for me comes on 'Control Freak', when Howard rewards Ian Button's love of stomping glam-pop by jettisoning his standard immaculate phrasing for a south-London snarl.
Rotifer and Button penned the lyrics to two songs each, and, while they were deliberately written for their eventual singer, it is inevitable that the ghosts of two such distinctive songwriters seep in. Even before I'd checked the credits, the lyrics to “London's After Work Drinking Culture” were unmistakably the work of Robert Rotifer – a sense of despair at the mess society is getting itself into, combined with a feeling that the 'stars' of the song are the orchestrators of their own doom.
Likewise, 'Thunder in Vienna' manages the trick Button pulled off so consistently on his last Papernut Cambridge album of suggesting layers of depth buried not too deeply beneath what, on the surface, seems an unusually plain-spoken lyric (for example - 'stuff', in Button's universe, is a way of wrapping any number of issues into a single word).
All this never stops Howard being the star of the show. Just listen to his voice soar on 'Safety On Numbers', as he sings “Stuff all the homophobes, bigots and yobs / Stuff them with our love, watch 'em all gob / Their poison can't touch us anymore.” Or his affectionate cover of Roddy Frame's 'Small World'. Or how the deceptively simple ditty “This Song” (just 1.42 long) sticks in your head after just one listen. His, however, is the kind of talent it isn't easy to describe in writing – you can't analyse music like this, you just sit back and wonder how he could possibly have all these brilliant ideas in his head.
I have framed this review around the notion that this record is a companion to Howard's 'lost' 70’s work. In fact, it is a slightly misleading concept. ‘John Howard and the Night Mail’ will, I think, prove to be the go-to John Howard album. Though not catchy in the 'Magic FM' sense (you won't hear these songs played in taxi cabs and barbershops), the more you listen to these songs, the more they wrap themselves around your head – and little details, a biting lyric, an expected bass run or a burst of guitar, pop out.
It is, alas, unrealistic to think that John Howard will suddenly now become the pop star he should have been in the 70s. But, had he released this album then, surely no amount of prejudice or bad luck could have stopped people wanting to buy it.
Intact & Smiling
In the Light of Fires Burning
London's After-Work Drinkin
Thunder In Vienna
Safety In Numbers
Tip of Your Shoe