I’ve seen her rivet an audience to their seats as effortlessly as she likely ties her shoes, and I think I know every note of her 1996 release Do A Two Sable from memory, as well as having “Sneaky AM” from Skorborealis pop into my head at random and completely against my will.
She’s also is the proud owner of one of the coolest old Fender Jazzmasters ever.
It seems that no matter what the style, the year or the format, be it solo or band, Howle is consistently, relentlessly herself. Her latest, Thank You Mark, continues her tradition of impeccable songwriting, with that timeless sense of melody fully on display. In a scant 36 minutes, Thank You Mark slips through country, folk, swing and R&B, though it’s tough to justify pigeon-holing the material into those categories. Suffice to say, it’s a lovely depiction of what it is that Howle does.
Produced by Hootie and the Blowfish guitarist Mark Bryan, Thank You Mark sports a “who’s who” cast of players from the southeastern music scene, including Jump Little Children’s Jay Clifford and Ward Williams providing the string arrangement for “Love is a Fall,” with Williams on cello. Hobex’s Greg Humphries pops up on backup vocals and guitars (as well as pedal steel) on the first two tracks and none other than Darius Rucker duets with Howle on the Etta James classic “If I Can’t Have You.”
While not as rocking as the aforementioned Skorborealis, Thank You Mark is actually more successful in reconciling the artist you hear in her solo performances and the artist heard on the CD’s. This isn’t to say the previous albums weren’t accurate representations of Howle, it’s just that this one somehow captures the intimacy she creates in a small venue, but marries it with full band arrangements — the sense of space is gorgeous and perfect.
But as easy as it would be to blabber on about the recording quality and the playing, it’s always been the songs that knock you over, that ability she has to make time kind of stop and float in the air for a while. Maybe it’s the fact that these tunes sound like they’ve been around for years, whether it’s the somber southern-gothic of “Fields of Cotton” or the bittersweet sigh of “Love Is a Fall.” Maybe her voice — at one moment a gentle scrub like 4-ought steel wool, then vaulting effortlessly through the octaves, as in “This Kind Of Light” or “Walking Through The Black.” There are moments (many, actually) that make me think of Neil Young’s Harvest Moon in their pure representations of what songwriting really is, the true power that well crafted images, storytelling and melody have to get you completely lost for a while.
I don’t really have the space to recount all the reasons this CD deserves to reside in your player, but I figure if you’re already familiar with Howle’s music, it’s a given that you’ll acquire it. If not, and you consider yourself an aficionado of the “good stuff” in the realm of singer/songwriters, for Pete’s sake go buy it.
As an added bonus, you can catch Howle with the quite stupendous Last Train Home at the Grey Eagle in Asheville on Wednesday, April 26. I’d make some comment about “being a total shmuck if you miss the show,” but the last time I said that it was ME that missed the show, so maybe I learned a lesson about name-calling. So it would be very unwise to miss this show, but if you do, there’s probably nothing wrong with you — other than being a complete goober. 5 stars.