Simple -- Howie Day's music is simple. The studio versions of many of the songs are easy melodic lines looped over and over, with webby yet sparse production, bare-necessities support instrumentation, and nary a back-up vocal. His lyrics are transparently emotional and plainly decipherable, with straightforward titles and uncomplicated theses. And his voice -- well, it is what it is: a steamy, heartfelt tenor, locomoting through his mid-range, occasionally chugging deeper or chugging determinedly upwards. The music is just that simple. It is also stunning.
To make something this simple, yet endlessly rich, is the magic that 22-year old Howie Day transmits, first on his 2000 release Australia, and here again on EP/DVD The Madrigals EP (2003). Though in rock and its derivatives, simple is sometimes understood here as a synonym for lazy, unoriginal, or thankless, Day is able to render simplicity into a beautiful and moving egression.
Madrigals consists of two previously unreleased demos, "Madrigals" and "You & a Promise", which may very well make an appearance on his forthcoming follow up to Australia. Both are in the style that Day does best -- slow/moderate tempo ballads, dominated by acoustic guitar. "You & a Promise" is the faster of the two, a saucy, meditative stunner co-written by fellow balladeer Jay Clifford (of Jump, Little Children). Opening the song, Day's urgent singing during the verse is a spacey drum machine and howling synthesized noise, which fades as the song moves toward the chorus. The key changes, too, momentarily rising out of minor into major tones, before Day breaks open, crying out the chorus, which is a simple repetition of the song's title. What is remarkable is how powerfully, and desperately, Day sings -- as if he's pushing his soul out, the force awe-inspiring, breathtaking.
Live performance is Day's forte, showcased here on the live tracks "Sorry So Sorry" and "Bunnies". "Sorry So Sorry" was released on Australia, but the version here is more deliberate, painstaking, oversized, and intense. Pregnant pauses drench the verses with suspense; echoing effects amplify the lush cadences of Day's guitar playing; the audience response enlivens the entire experience to terrific delight. Previously unreleased "Bunnies" is far less innocent and haunting than its title might suggest. It is an evocative, swirling slow song, stitched with the words "strangle me, strangle me" over and over again, as well as spiraling guitar work in cascading louds and softs. In addition, the EP collection includes a companion DVD, featuring live performances of "Bunnies", "Sorry So Sorry", "Ghost", and "Madrigals".
Howie Day keeps thing simple, and thank goodness. This reviewer would have it no other way.