No two ways about it, Kenny Howes writes and performs some excellent power pop. It only takes one listen to Kenny Howes and the Yeah! to realize that as truth. What is less understandable is why the man remains so obscure.
Howes has been recording and performing his brand of classic power pop since the mid-’90s, issuing albums as a solo artist and performing live with his band, the Yeah! With his first three albums and subsequent best-of compilation, Howes was more or less running a one-man show. Each release helped cement his reputation in the Atlanta music scene and with the Yeah! supporting his live element, Howes and company have played festivals such as the Atlanta Music Conference and International Pop Overthrow, as well as opened for luminaries like Jonathan Richman and Alex Chilton.
This self-titled disc, however, marks the first time that Howes has brought the Yeah! into the studio to record, and the results are definitely rewarding. Full of rich, thick rock and pop, the dynamism of a full band in the recording process is noticeable in the overall density of these tracks. It’s difficult to put your finger on it, but sometimes you can just hear the contributions that other musicians make. Jason NeSmith’s guitars, Kyle Harris’s bass, and Kelly Shane’s drums fill out Howes’ songs and allow Howes to deliver his own truly brilliant performance.
The album opens with a straight-up rock tune of crunchy power chords in “Come On Up”, which extols the listener to “Come on up / Come on up and see me”. Although it’s not a consciously Mae West type delivery, the song is essentially about the same thing as the actress’s famous come-on, plus it also works as a clever way of asking the listener to come in and enjoy the rest of the disc. The song is immediately followed by “Number Two”, a forlorn song of unrequited love notable for the ringing guitars that open the track, sounding almost like tolling bells and setting the tone and mood for the song. The tight, tense drumming and skanking rhythm guitar amplify the frustration of the lyrics, but also form a counterpoint to the open notes of the lead, bell-like guitar lines.
Howes also displays his Southern roots in the nods “You Make Me Feel Like I’m Not Crazy”, which combines a Wilco twang and Beatlesque harmonics in a way that sounds not a little like Del Amitri, and “Go There”, which opens with a ’70s power pop rise, but winds up being a great take on George Thorogood and the Destroyers. However, Howes has a wide range of influences to draw from, with “Diary Queen” reminiscing in the direction of the Who, or “Down to Earth”‘s obligatory Paul Westerberg inclinations (delivered here in a way that rivals the Goo Goo Dolls for radio pop viability). And while most of the songs focus on relationships, as the majority of pop will, “Strangers” tackles political issues and social alienation in such a straightforward manner that comparisons to Michael Been are not unwarranted.
One of the disc’s biggest pleasant surprises is a cover of Kirsty MacColl’s “They Don’t Know”. Yes, the bubblegum pop tune made famous by Tracey Ullman. Sticking to the song’s classic pop style, and sounding a bit like Billy Joel’s doo wop phase, Howes and company play the song without a trace of irony. If you weren’t already aware of Ullman’s version, you wouldn’t know that it wasn’t written by and for a man in the first place. If anything, this song goes the furthest in showing that Howes’ affection for pop music is completely genuine and one that takes its fun seriously.
If I hadn’t already been completely sold on Kenny Howes and the Yeah! by the time I reached “Few & Far Between”, that song and its outro would have done it. A lovely, lilting ballad, the song builds from a waltzing acoustic strum into an angry, scorned howl. Lost love is encapsulated in the lyric “If you’re sick / Then I hope that you get well / And if you’re not / Then I hope you fry in hell / No I don’t / I’m just bitter and confused / I don’t know why I let myself get used”, all sung in a gruff, strained voice. Then the song collapses back into its lilting wistfulness.
Alone it’s a great song, but with the inclusion of the outro “hidden track”, it’s made even better. Taking a simple riff from “Few & Far Between”, the album’s outro is an eight-minute instrumental epic that starts off as a slow dirge, and builds through a layering of piano, drums and soloing guitars. Certainly more prog rock than post-rock (dare I say “jam band”?), this piece survives the doldrums of tedium with great fills and hooks. What’s most impressive is that despite the fact that it takes a full five minutes for the tempo to even pick up noticeably, it never sounds boring. I usually find these instrumentals, especially those built around a single riff, to be so repetitive that they ruin otherwise likable discs. But the hooks on this track keep it in gear and keep the listener interested, so that by the time it reaches its high-speed climax, with drums and piano and guitars all pounding around that same riff in double time, the tension is palpable. When it all explodes in a fiery crescendo, it actually seems like an excellent way to end an excellent album.
Although Howes’ prior solo albums are now out of print, the compilation album The Right Idea has circulated enough that his fame has grown beyond Georgia’s borders. Hopefully with this full-band release, Kenny Howes and the Yeah! will reach even broader audiences. Fans of power pop everywhere will find much to love in Howes’ work.