Review by: Mark Maria Ahsmann
Album assigned by: Andreas Georgi
After all these years it’s nice to hear from Rowland S. Howard again – no surprise though.
By the time the Birthday Party ended in 1983, Nick Cave was sick of Rowland S. Howard and his omnipresent guitar and decided not to take him along into the Bad Seeds but trade him in for Blixa Bargeld and his much more sparse guitar. As both gentlemen weighed almost nothing at the time the trade in can’t have been too hard on Cave’s back.
My budget was also quite sparse in these days and, as a lover of the Birthday Party, I did buy Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds albums at the record store in my hometown but I couldn’t afford to travel to Amsterdam, Brussels or London to purchase the various releases by Howard, be it solo or in various bands. So I lost track of him, apart from occasionally hearing the stuff he did with Lydia Lunch at that time.
Obviously I was curious to know what became of his music when I was asked to review his 2009 release “Pop Crimes”. I found that his sound is basically unchanged. “Pop Crimes” could have been released in 1985 as well.
I was a bit disappointed at first until after a couple of listens I realised that it is a very pleasant and well made album nonetheless. And of course to me it feels like home.
So: “Pop Crimes” is a short (38 minutes), well arranged and accessible album by the former lead guitarist of the Birthday Party, released in 2009; the year of his death. It contains eight songs of which six are originals and two are covers (“Life’s What You Make It” by Talk Talk and “Nothin’” by Townes van Zandt). The style of these eight songs varies from defiant, dirgelike and bluesy goth rock to mournful dream pop. The lyrics are ruminations of a bad boy in a worse world. One of the chief attractions is Howard’s guitar playing; sharp as surgical scissors yet soothing as the nurse who handles them.
Howard also sings and for 38 minutes that’s alright with me – the guy is not a singer by birth. He sounds like a cross between latter day Joey Ramone and Leonard Cohen when he was losing his voice on “Death Of A Ladies Man”. Which wouldn’t be a bad thing of course if he didn’t also sound like he was trying to gulp down a pint of peanut butter at the same time.
The songs are all decent though not spectacular. Highlights for me are: the darkly suggestive dream pop duet “A Girl Called Jonny” (about a girl called Jonny and she also bangs the drum – did the guy listen to the Waterboys in 2009 or what?), the from life affirming to menacing makeover of “Life’s What You Make It” (with a double bass and piano line that sounds a lot like ditto in the Bad Seeds’ Cabin Fever), the dirty rocking title track with a fantastic bassline and the mournful love lost song “Ave Maria”. Letdowns there are none.
“Pop Crimes” was released in the year prior to Howard’s death and I wonder if that knowledge is really important for your apprehension of the record. I don’t think so; the record does not really sound like a black star to me nor do the lyrics hint at Howard’s End as far as I know (of course the lyrics hint at the End in general but that’s par for the course with the genre).