Listening to popular music for any length of time conditions you to have certain expectations regarding what it sounds like. This really shouldn't come as much of a surprise as we've been hearing basic variations on the same theme now since the 1950s. Every so often a new flavour is added to the mix, but the formulae of under four minutes and don't really challenge the listeners musically or lyrically is adhered to almost religiously. Originality is actually seen as drawback, making it difficult for any work deviating from the norm to gain acceptance. All of which makes the path being taken by Heyward Howkins, as displayed on his first CD The Hale & Hearty (due June 26, 2012), seem all the more brave and difficult.
For this is not a collection of conventional pop songs by any stretch of the imagination. In fact there isn't anything others are currently doing for the listener to use as a reference for comparison. The only two singers who come close to being in a similar area would be Antony of Antony and The Johnsons and Rufus Wainwright. But that's only because those two, like Howkins, are not doing what everyone else is doing and have the same sort of sensibility when it comes to their approach. Their music doesn't sound much like his, but all three bring a kind of emotional impressionism to their work, unlike most people's much more literal approach.
You won't find any neat little packages coming in at three minutes and twenty-five seconds about boy meets girl who then gets heart broken. Instead you'll find him painting with a more subtle brush. Through a combination of music, lyrics and arrangements, his songs aren't limited to one emotion.They manage to convey the myriad of feelings involved with a particular aspect of life. The lyrics themselves may not actually tell a story, but like poetry they convey the emotional message of the song through inference and suggestion. The music, and by extension a song's arrangement, serve to accent and compliment what the lyrics have created. A single song will travel from the austerity of a single acoustic guitar acting as accompaniment to a crescendo of strings, horns and vocal harmonies, then ebbing and flowing between the two over its course like a relentless tide.
In general I look upon the use of orchestration in pop music in much the same way as poison ivy, in that it's best avoided if you don't want to break out in hives. However, once in a great while someone is able to use the instruments in question without descending to the level of cliché. The arrangements that Howkins and producer/co-arranger Chet Delcampo (who also plays mellotron, keys, guitar, bass and drums on the disc) have created never stoop to the obvious. You're not going to find any "swelling strings" on this disc or anything anybody would think of describing as lush. What you do find is a careful architecture where each instrument has been placed in the exact right place, playing the exact right tone, so they all fit perfectly together in the building of each song. Their incorporation into a song's overall structure is so seamless, you barely even notice them as individual entities.