An impressive debut LP from the Devon-based folk-pop newcomer.
Nick Levine 2011-09-21
He describes himself as a "keen surfer", and recently gave a series of beachside gigs in aid of keeping Britain's shores "barefoot-friendly", but if you're about to parkour your way to any conclusions, don't. Ben Howard most certainly isn't the "UK's answer to Jack Johnson".
What he is, on the evidence of this impressive debut album, is a gifted and immediately involving singer-songwriter. The 23-year-old from Devon – or "Devonshire", as his record company rather self-consciously refers to his home county – has pretty diverse musical tastes: he posts videos by artists as disparate as Paul Simon, Aretha Franklin and Robyn on his personal blog. However, it's the music of John Martyn and Bon Iver, both of whom he listens to "a lot", that has a tangible impact on his sound.
That's right, this fella's a folkie: his musical tools are nimbly-plucked guitar strings, near-choral backing harmonies, percussion that feels pastoral rather than processed, the evocative tones of India Bourne's cello. The term ‘folk-pop’ rather brings to mind JCB Song one-hit wonders Nizlopi, which Howard's music rather does not, but the lad does have a knack for a hook: with its sing-along chorus and positive sentiments, current single Keep Your Head Up could almost be called a "self-empowerment anthem".
Radio-friendly it may be, but there's nothing fey about Howard's folk: his up-tempo numbers have the muscular momentum of a galloping stallion, while his more subdued songs are underpinned by sinewy rhythms and a certain weightiness of theme. For example, the lovely Everything deals with the inevitability of renewal and change, while the slow-building and panoramic Black Flies is essentially a break-up song.
Whether he's singing about love or the world around him, Howard invariably taps the natural world for imagery: this is an album of horses and wolves, the wind and the sea, in which one’s relative insignificance in the scheme of things is likened to being "just a blade in the grass". But what could seem clichéd on the page has resonance on record, thanks to the husky soulfulness of Howard's voice and the sheer good nature of his songwriting. By the time he uses the album's closing track to ask his paramour "Who am I to you?", you're really hoping her answer is "The One".