Review Summary: Pure folk for the nostalgic, roots and all.
As the music world seems to indulge itself more and more in the new rift of sounds developing through electronics, folk stands as a resilient genre, stubbornly un-willing to be pulled from its deep roots. Granted, Vernon latest remains the exception to the rule, yet folk in its deepest core elements remains the same – Vernon’s voice for example, is still truly in-debt to folk. Folk flourishes in its ability to strip away everything but a voice and chords – it relies heavily upon the strength of a voice, lyrics and passionate expression. It’s no surprise then to find Ben Howard here channeling a huge sounding board of previous folk artists, placing its strength in the same well of ideas and conventions of old. It’s impossible to discuss contemporary folk without Bon Iver presiding like the eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg over the genre’s landscape of feeling, and whom much of critical discussion seems to pivot off of, but Howard gleefully avoids that argument altogether, casting his sights back to Damien Rice, and further to Joni Mitchell, recalling even a bit of the acoustic flair of Bob Dylan.
The sound here predominantly rings of steel acoustics, a simple snare based beat, a background of strings, and Howard’s, soft, smooth, and sentimental tenor. Howard’s sound seems like it has been grabbed from a front porch somewhere in the countryside, with Howard, guitar latched in hand, looks out unto a sunburnt country as the sun casts a red ocher over the horizon. The songs hazily play out in run-of-the-mill folk stylings, but that isn’t to say it’s devoid of substance. Some songs will catch you with something inventive – for example ‘Everything’’s chorus of flicked fingerpicking, Howard’s stretched cries of ‘love love love!’ at the end of ‘The Wolves,’ or ‘Keep Your Head Up’’s ridiculously catchy chorus.
’s main trapping is the fact the album as a whole sits too easily in Howard’s comfort zone. Most of the tunes here are extremely sound, unobtrusive, and simple textbook folk. The triumphant moments are where Howard gains some grain in his voice at the end of ‘Old Pine’ and ‘Black Flies’ which both teeter on the edge of something more brash and visceral. ‘Keep Your Head Up’ has an urgency you didn’t realize the rest of the album was lacking, and following on from it is the albums best track, ‘Black Flies,’ which has a grander feel to it. Yet these moments are brief and eventually fall back upon the conventional formula. It is perhaps for this reason Ben Howard hasn’t truly broken the mainstream surface yet (save for an amusing cover of ‘Call Me Maybe’).
is also heavily missing a crux, ‘Black Flies’ coming scarily close; it is screaming out for a ‘The Blowers Daughter’ like song, to construct a bit more resonance and impact. Ben Howard simply reminds me of that kid in music class that never really knows their own potential. The guitar skills are there, the voice has a beautiful tone and character, but the songs just aren't poignant enough to garner a wide enough impact. However, potential being potential, it wouldn’t be daring to expect something a little grander from Howard sometime soon. And I, for one, wouldn’t be surprised if he dives into a long and illustrious career.