[2 April 2012]
Many of us have likely had some iteration of the following conversation, usually at a trendy, Starbucks-loathing, independent coffee joint:
Person A: Have you heard that new songwriter?
Person B: Which one are you talking about?
Person A: You know, the one from England. He’s got this indie, folky, Elliot Smith-esque vibe. He’s huge in England, but not many people know him in the States.
Person B: Well, you know what this means, don’t you?
Person A: Record store run?
Person B: (Smiles) You get me, you know that?
Person A: Well, you know me. I like my music like I like my coffee: underground and extremely pretentious.
Okay, well, maybe not that last line. But in any case there is an affinity for the musicians across the pond, especially the kind that cater to the indie crowd. It wasn’t that long ago when Coldplay were nothing but a seemingly normal rock band that everyone thought wanted to be Radiohead deep down, and just last year Mumford and Sons barnstormed through the states with their take on Americana. The former’s rise to prominence has come with an abandoning of what made them so great at first; the scattershot experimentation of Mylo Xyloto can’t hold a candle to the honest piano balladry of A Rush of Blood to the Head. But while Coldplay’s career trajectory seems to be headed toward more feeble attempts at being adventurous, Mumford and Sons still have a shot at not becoming an irrelevant copycat. Embrace did the Coldplay-aping thing convincingly for one record (2005’s Out of Nothing), but, well, who listens to Embrace at this point? There’s a litany of folk groups both in the mainstream and indie scenes, and it’d be shame to see a debut as good as Sigh No More be the only good thing in the band’s career.
The all-too-familiar setting that these two British groups occupy is the same one that Ben Howard’s debut release, Every Kingdom finds itself in. Everything about him screams “craze:” he’s handsome, has a great voice (think a slightly less husky Ray LaMontagne), and a knack for a hook. Not to mention his music would sound absolutely killer in a coffee shop. And while his brand of singer/songwriter folk isn’t anything that hasn’t been done in the past few years, he does strike a somewhat unique balance, particularly in instrumentation. The dynamics of Every Kingdom rest somewhere in between Coldplay’s stadium-filling alternative and Mumford and Sons’ rustic hoedowns. Opening track “Old Pine” is the best example of this: the track begins quietly enough with some typical nature observation, but then concludes with a great acoustic guitar riff that sounds like it’d be at home on an anthemic rock record. The riff has a restrained power; it doesn’t aim for grandeur, and it isn’t trying to be a barn-burner either. It’s just a great riff. Throughout Every Kingdom Howard plays to his strengths, the greatest of which is his skill in crafting hooks.
This skill is what makes the album so addictive; while at first I leaned toward dismissing it as run-of-the-mill, I kept coming back. In particular, I found myself listening to “The Wolves” on repeat; while its chorus is plagued by one of those dramatic-sounding-but-technically-meaningless lines that have at tendency to move people (“We lost faith / In the arms of love”), the music is absolutely great. He draws from some curious influences, too; “Everything” mixes Steve Vai-esque guitar harmonics with a gospel sensibility in one of the album’s more moving moments. For the majority of the time Howard sticks to his guns, which makes Every Kingdom both infectious and cohesive. To an extent he is economic in his songwriting, but it isn’t entirely formulaic.
That isn’t to say that he doesn’t fall prey to some notable flaws, which can clearly be seen in his lyrics. Most of the time they’re inoffensive, but there are a few duds that would even get a rise out of Chris Martin. (I’m still recovering from “Every Teardrop is a Waterfall”.) The previously mentioned chorus lyric of “The Wolves” is emblematic of the empty declarations on the rest of the album. “The Fear” is another prime lyrical misstep (“I been worryin’ that we all live our lives in the confines of fear”), preferring to, as the maxim goes, tell rather than show. Nevertheless, on the whole the music more than makes up for his lyricism. I wouldn’t recommend anyone listen to Howard for his lyrical insight, but I’d still recommend Every Kingdom.
Given the overall strength of this album, I hope that Howard doesn’t become drowned out by the ever-growing current of like songwriters with a knack for fingerpicked acoustic chords and a hipster fashion sense. There’s a lot of excellent material on Every Kingdom, and so long as Howard keeps doing what he does best he could become a national craze that’s actually worth listening to. Every Kingdom has been out for quite awhile overseas, and it’s now getting its US release. Time will tell how us trendsters in America take to Howard’s brand of folk, but given the quality of his songwriting I have a feeling that this won’t be the last we’ll hear from him.