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.
Howkins vocals are as individual as the rest of the recording. While there is a slightly ethereal quality to his tenor voice, it’s not without body or texture. One thing you’ll notice is that unlike quite a number of male singers who use the upper ranges of the register, he is not a one-note vocalist. While he hardly ever strays into the lower areas of the scale he finds a way to modulate his tone so his voice changes to suit the emotional requirements of a song. There’s nothing so annoying as hearing a vocalist sound exactly the same as when he’s singing about supposedly opposing emotions. Howkins’ is able to use his voice to complete the picture that the music had begun to draw.
The disc’s first song is the spare, almost minimalist, “Thundering Stop”. In it, he describes two people walking along side of a canal and having a conversation. Not quite the normal subject matter for a song in this day and age. However, like in life, there’s more than meets the eye to what we think is going on. Opening with the tune picked out on guitar accompanied by cello, he sings “By the side of the sleepy canal/You gave a sibilant shout/And then the baby was out/The whole sky’s in a front when we’re sitting in the mud composing ourselves/For the thundering stop”. What begins as sort of a serene setting is suddenly interrupted by a “sibilant shout”. Now any sort of shout would be sudden, but the image of someone trying not to cause a scene by hissing or whispering their shout is somehow even more jarring than if they had just shouted.
Without giving us time to properly absorb this first disquieting note, the possibilities of the third line are upon us. Is it simply a way of saying a secret is out, or should we also take it literally and assume it means the secret was the other person was pregnant? Whatever it is, the next lines imply there is some sort of storm brewing that there can be no preparing oneself for. In the next verse the walk continues, but instead of being by a sleepy canal it sounds like the couple is almost speed walking to some locks a little bit further along. What’s amazing about this song is not only does it manage to evoke the emotions of the scene it describes, but it spurs the imagination to picture what could have come before and what might happen after.
Two people in two completely different frames of mind set out. He looking forward to a peaceful outing walking by the canal and she plagued by some secret which has been eating away at her until she’s no longer able to bear it anymore and blurts it out. After the shock they continue, but now hurry as nothing can ever be the same any more. What will happen to them when they get to the locks that are their destination? Will they climb into a car together and drive home sitting side by side in the front seat in silence? Or do they use the privacy offered by the car as a chance to have a conversation? Where can they go after such a “Thundering Stop”.
While there is nothing like a typical song on the disc, “Thundering Stop” is emblematic of the type of thing you can expect from Heyward Howkins on his first release, The Hale & Hearty. Each song is a superbly crafted work with music and lyrics working in tandem to create something that transcends the normal boundaries of popular music. By no means is this what you’d call an easily accessible recording. While it won’t appeal to those whose appetites are satisfied with the normal fast food equivalent of music usually on offer, those looking for something more substantial might just find themselves leaving the table fulfilled.
Howkins is not only an accomplished musician and singer, he also has the ability to turn words and music into worlds for his listeners to explore. However, like a good poem or story, instead of being merely escapism, they provide us with insights and observations firmly based in reality. It’s a rare thing these days to find a singer of popular music who can inspire you to flights of imagination, but Howkins does so and more. The Hale & The Hearty is being released on June 26, 2012 and tracks from the album are now available for download through Bandcamp.