By Julie Finley
If you have never heard of Harry Howard, here is a quick history lesson. Harry hails from Melbourne Australia; he’s the younger brother of the late, great Rowland S. Howard, and is a musician in his own right. He’s had tenure in several bands—most notably Crime & the City Solution and These Immortal Souls—was a brief member in the revolving door of miscreants known as The Birthday Party, and a touring member of Shotgun Wedding (one of the many Lydia Lunch-fronted entourages). All of the aforementioned acts were always along side his brother Rowland, and always as a bassist. Harry was also the lead guitarist of Melbourne-based Pink Stainless Tail for a number of years, and strangely enough, is linked to the electronic act Cut Copy.
Harry Howard is a prominent member of the music scene that has emerged from Melbourne since the 1970s, but hasn’t ever really had the spotlight. Although he may be linked to many musicians, putting out a record is easier said than done. Life happens, and in Harry’s case, Death, and Near Death Experiences happen, too!
Over the years, Harry has written his own stuff and clearly, it had been shelved long enough. Fast forward to 2010: Shortly after the death of his brother, Harry started performing live gigs as the front man of his own band (The Near Death Experience, often shortened to “the NDE”) that also includes his girlfriend Edwina Preston (organ, stylophone, vocals); veteran Aussie musician Dave Graney on bass; and Graney’s wife, Clare Moore on drums. An equal opportunity, double date!
With that said, I need to make clear from the get-go that if you are expecting this album to sound like Harry’s brother Rowland, Nick Cave, Lydia Lunch, or any other fragments from his discography, it absolutely does NOT! In fact, I can honestly say I don’t hear any of his former bands referenced (except for Pink Stainless Tail) in his new album, simply known as Near Death Experience.
The two bands that come to mind when listening are The Fall and X. The Fall, mainly because Harry’s voice sounds a little like Mark E. Smith, but you can actually understand what the fuck he is saying! Imagine Mark E. Smith with teeth, sober, and not being a belligerent asshole, and that sums up Harry’s vocal style. I mentioned X mainly because many songs are sung by both Harry and Edwina (male/female harmony like John Doe and Exene Cervenka), and Edwina’s voice reminds me of Exene’s, but with an audible Aussie accent. Edwina has a very loud, strong voice, and it takes you by surprise, because from the photos I’ve seen, she’s a very svelte woman! It has a punch to it that’s reminiscent of PJ Harvey and Anna Calvi (also very svelte women with voices that can bulldoze you with one word).
Musically, you’d be surprised to know that Harry’s guitar work is evocative of Keith Richards (and nothing like his brother’s). The organ/stylophone gives a good lo-fi roughness to the songs, but there are also strong melodic qualities that make the them catchy overall. The back-beat (i.e., bass and drums) is quite early Stones-like. Clare’s drumming definitely reminds me of Charlie Watts: simple, clean, and perfect. At the same time, this band doesn’t sound like The Stones either, because there is no essence of Mick Jagger to be found on this album!
Lyrically, this album is humorous, and I don’t mean that you laugh at the quality of the lyrics, either. The songs are autobiographical, observational, and self-deprecating, but not depressing. You can’t help but laugh at the wry wit throughout. Common themes are: aging, illness, relationships, and shoes. Yes, I said SHOES! I think Harry might have a foot fetish, because there are three songs about shoes and feet (“New Shoes,” “Old Black Shoe,” “Size 9 Feet”) and all of those songs are also quite funny and observational.
As I was saying, aging and illness also seem to be a common theme in this album, and by Harry’s own admission, the songs are a bit confessional. Harry is 50 years old and he’s had some major health problems. He’s not decrepit, but he probably feels older than he is because his health hasn’t been agreeing with him for several years. Clearly he’s feeling better, or otherwise this album would’ve never happened. With that said, his tales about being ill are strangely. . . humorous! You don’t find his condition funny, but you do find his attitude about it funny. He’s not whining; he’s just calling it as he sees it. Songs like “Blood Test,” “Since We’ve Been Dead,” and “Sick Sick Sick” are telling, but “The Old Man Blues” is outright fucking hilarious! Seriously, the lyrics are tragicomic and genuine, and because of that, its my favorite track on the album.
Relationshits (relationships) are another common theme, and they’re also handled with the same dry humor, but at times these songs can be touchingly sincere. “Lies” is a nice little ditty that opens the album, very catchy, and very facetious! The duet of “We Can’t Decide” is a dual-perspective break-up song, that gives you two sides to the story . . . and both sides are absurd! “By Our Own Hand” is a droll ballad that gives you the impression it’s going to be a serious love song, but as the lyrics unfold, you can’t ignore the sarcasm. Another relationship track (probably my second favorite) called “The Trouble With Girls” gets right to the point, and yet again, it’s really funny and sticks in your head.
The album ends with probably the most serious (lyrically) track on the album called “History is Linear” and it’s also the longest one. It’s the only one that isn’t humorous, but that doesn’t detract from the song itself. It’s very honest, but it’s also psychedelic. It reminds me of Syd Barrett, but it actually makes sense. There’s no ambiguity here, and that’s one of the best things about not just this song, but the whole album. There’s no bullshit going on here . . . and I love it!
Near Death Experience was released in February. Be sure to check out Harry Howard’s Bandcamp site, where you can stream songs as well as purchase the album.