Music

Ben Howard: Every Kingdom

So long as Howard sticks to the strengths of Every Kingdom, he shouldn’t succumb to the foibles of many popular British acts. (I’m looking at you, Coldplay and Embrace.)


Ben Howard

Every Kingdom

Label: Communion
US Release Date: 2012-04-03
UK Release Date: 2011-10-03
Label website
Artist Website
Amazon
iTunes

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.

8

Music

Books

Film

Recent
Books

'World War 3 Illustrated #51: The World We Are Fighting For'

World War 3 Illustrated #51 displays an eclectic range of artists united in their call to save democracy from rising fascism.

Music

Tiphanie Doucet's "You and I" Is an Exercise in Pastoral Poignancy (premiere)

French singer-songwriter Tiphanie Doucet gives a glimpse of her upcoming EP, Painted Blue, via the sublimely sentimental ode, "You and I".

Music

PM Picks Playlist 3: WEIRDO, Psychobuildings, Lili Pistorius

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of WEIRDO, Brooklyn chillwavers Psychobuildings, the clever alt-pop of Lili Pistorius, visceral post-punk from Sapphire Blues, Team Solo's ska-pop confection, and dubby beats from Ink Project.

By the Book

The Story of Life in 10 1/2 Species (excerpt)

If an alien visitor were to collect ten souvenir life forms to represent life on earth, which would they be? This excerpt of Marianne Taylor's The Story of Life in 10 and a Half Species explores in text and photos the tiny but powerful earthling, the virus.

Marianne Taylor
Film

Exploitation Shenanigans 'Test Tube Babies' and 'Guilty Parents' Contend with the Aftermath

As with so many of these movies about daughters who go astray, Test Tube Babies blames the uptight mothers who never told them about S-E-X. Meanwhile, Guilty Parents exploits poor impulse control and chorus girls showing their underwear.

Music

Deftones Pull a Late-Career Rabbit Out of a Hat with 'Ohms'

Twenty years removed from Deftones' debut album, the iconic alt-metal outfit gel more than ever and discover their poise on Ohms.

Music

Arcade Fire's Will Butler Personalizes History on 'Generations'

Arcade Fire's Will Butler creates bouncy, infectious rhythms and covers them with socially responsible, cerebral lyrics about American life past and present on Generations.

Music

Thelonious Monk's Recently Unearthed 'Palo Alto' Is a Stellar Posthumous Live Set

With a backstory as exhilarating as the music itself, a Thelonious Monk concert recorded at a California high school in 1968 is a rare treat for jazz fans.

Music

Jonnine's 'Blue Hills' Is an Intimate Collection of Half-Awake Pop Songs

What sets experimental pop's Jonnine apart on Blue Hills is her attention to detail, her poetic lyricism, and the indelibly personal touch her sound bears.

Music

Renegade Connection's Gary Asquith Indulges in Creative Tension

From Renegade Soundwave to Renegade Connection, electronic legend Gary Asquith talks about how he continues to produce infectiously innovative music.

Film

What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .

Music

A Certain Ratio Return with a Message of Hope on 'ACR Loco'

Inspired by 2019's career-spanning box set, legendary Manchester post-punkers A Certain Ratio return with their first new album in 12 years, ACR Loco.

Books

Oscar Hijuelos' 'Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love' Dances On

Oscar Hijuelos' dizzyingly ambitious foot-tapping family epic, Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love, opened the door for Latinx writers to tell their stories in all their richness.

Music

PM Picks Playlist 2: Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES, SOUNDQ

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES' stunning dream folk, Polish producer SOUNDQ, the indie pop of Pylon Heights, a timely message from Exit Kid, and Natalie McCool's latest alt-pop banger.

Film

'Lost Girls and Love Hotels' and Finding Comfort in Sadness

William Olsson's Lost Girls and Love Hotels finds optimism in its message that life tears us apart and puts us back together again differently.

Music

Bright Eyes' 'Down in the Weeds' Is a Return to Form and a Statement of Hope

Bright Eyes may not technically be emo, but they are transcendently expressive, beatifically melancholic. Down in the Weeds is just the statement of grounding that we need as a respite from the churning chaos around us.

Film

Audrey Hepburn + Rome = Grace, Class, and Beauty

William Wyler's Roman Holiday crosses the postcard genre with a hardy trope: Old World royalty seeks escape from stuffy, ritual-bound, lives for a fling with the modern world, especially with Americans.

Music

Colombia's Simón Mejía Plugs Into the Natural World on 'Mirla'

Bomba Estéreo founder Simón Mejía electrifies nature for a different kind of jungle music on his debut solo album, Mirla.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.