Given his prolific output as a collaborator and band member, it is both shocking and sad that Rowland S Howard – who passed away in 2009 – had only two solo records to his name. There is so much to be said about those two albums alone that you could easily occupy a 500-word review discussing them without touching on Howard’s impressive list of collaborators, among them Lydia Lunch and Nikki Sudden of Swell Maps. A treatise could be written on Howard’s involvement in the Birthday Party and his splintered, devious guitar-playing that influenced countless others and should have earned him a spot next to Johnny Marr as the greatest player to come out of the post-punk scene. Howard was also Nick Cave’s first foil, in both the Boys Next Door and the Birthday Party. Instead of going the Southern gothic route of Cave, Howard improved upon his fixation with ‘50s teen tropes, first explored in the Boys Next Door song “Shivers” – a song that is the closest approximation we may ever get to the slow dance at a prom in Hell – and put out consistently brilliant albums, both with his band These Immortal Souls and later with solo albums Teenage Snuff Film (1999) and Pop Crimes (2009).
Pop Crimes, recently reissued through Fat Possum, has a flawless side one and a near-perfect side two. This statement on its own isn’t too remarkable, but considering the album’s recording process had to be rushed due to Howard’s escalating and ultimately fatal liver cancer marks the album as an outstanding achievement. I would even go so far as to say the first half of Pop Crimes surpasses anything Howard’s colleague Cave has released since 2001’s No More Shall We Part. Album opener “(I Know) A Girl Called Johnny”, a duet with HTRK’s Jonnine Standish, starts with a trope – a “Be My Baby” drumbeat – that quickly becomes a tribute to one of Howard’s musical preferences, and ultimately solidifies the be-all and end-all of teen-crush songs. In short, it sounds like an apocalyptic version of the Ronnettes, complete with the perfect line, “He’s a pin-up poster high school crush.” This apocalyptic vein runs throughout the entirety of Pop Crimes, but a second spin through yearning is on offer first, with “Shut Me Down”. Howard’s down-on-his-luck baritone sounds positively diminished on the verses, but somehow still manages to make the chorus, with its brilliant line “I’m standing in a suit as ragged as my nerves,” chime.
Like fellow Birthday Party bandmate Mick Harvey, Howard is a deft interpreter of other artists’s songs. On Teenage Snuff Film, this was proven through Howard’s takes on “She Cried” by Jay and the Americans and Billy Idol’s “White Wedding”. On Pop Crimes, “Life’s What You Make It”, originally by Talk Talk, becomes both a snarling mutant crawling from the wreckage of New Wave and Howard’s epitaph, delivered two and a half months before his passing. Pop Crimes’s title track paints a wry, perverted picture of pop culture in the 21st century and backs it up with an indestructible bass line by frequent Howard collaborator and Hungry Ghosts’ JP Shilo. It should go without saying, but Howard’s own guitar playing throughout the album is stellar as ever, impossibly demented and expertly mangled.
Side two of Pop Crimes begins with another cover, that of Townes van Zandt’s “Nothin’”. It is perhaps not as risky of a choice as the Talk Talk cover, but Howard still manages to personalize it enough that those not familiar with the original would be forgiven for not realizing it is a cover. “Wayward Man” is Howard by-the-numbers, meaning its worlds better than a by-the-numbers cut by virtually any other artist. Pop Crimes ends on a high with “Ave Maria” and “The Golden Age of Bloodshed”. The tenderness and beauty of “Ave Maria” and its talk of a wedding day is completely subverted by “Bloodshed”, a song in which Howard jokes about pushing the button of an ejector seat that his wife is seated in. The mention of armed Catholic girls “on the make” works in tying the song back to the corrupted teen dream fantasizing of the album’s opener.
Listening to Pop Crimes now is as awe-inspiring as it is heartbreaking, a scorching reminder of a talent overlooked and gone too soon. With hope, its reissue will hopefully inspire a new strain of young music fans, enamored of the darker side of life and expert enough to articulate it through an instrument. Just as long as that instrument isn’t a guitar. Howard saw to that and this release was his final say on the matter.