Conjuring allusions to Smokey Robinson, Kid Congo Powers, David Lovering, and Fred Myrow, Philadelphia-based singer-songwriter Heyward Howkins is set to unleash his poignantly baroque The Hale & Hearty, an evocative amalgam of “British tweed (see Nick Drake)” and “dusty American flannel (see Bon Iver).” Personally, it’s quite like nothing I’ve heard before (lyrically or musically), flaunting unusual yet powerful all-analog arrangements, guided by Howkins’ unique, rustically thespian vocals. A smattering of the tunes gives off the husky Americana of Grizzly Bear (although not as dark), while others recall the raw textures (and horns) of Neutral Milk Hotel.
The Hale & Hearty releases tomorrow (June 26th) for digital consumption. Mr. Howkins was kind enough to forward In Harsh Light a digital copy in advance, and I can safely stand behind the meticulous craftsmanship on display here. In fact, one of the album’s more curious facets is Howkins’ connection to America’s forefathers, from which he inherits his name. For instance, his five-times grandfather, Thomas Heyward, Jr. (July 28, 1746 – March 6, 1809), was a signer of the Declaration of Independence (South Carolina representative), while other historic members of the Heyward lineage are also spoken to, per the track, “Spanish Moss”:
Brimmed hats on babes in waiting / Magnolia is housing / Heywards on cotton couches.
Here, subtle nods to Savannah cotton magnate Jacob Guerard Heyward are made, whose life Howkins uses to contrast against his own “middle-class Philadelphia existence,” which he acknowledges with bittersweet empathy.
The Hale & Hearty carefully patches together an uncommon mix of idiographic songs that stem from Howkins’ personal (and somewhat solipsistic) hometown experiences. Conversely, it traverses the seemingly insurmountable crest of one’s own neighborhood bric-a-brac, creating an interesting dynamic. To wit, in “Plume and Orange,” the album indulges in odd escapist whims where it tells a melancholic tale involving the last two birds on a post-apocalyptic Earth:
She’s through with talking / They’re the last two with a body still walking.
It’d make for a compelling, allegorical short story, wouldn’t it?
Earlier, on its titular track, Hale paints an ironic portrait between one’s deeply emotional connection to an idiosyncratic time and place; while concurrently romanticizing that experience from the outside looking in. It’s a brand of tension that encapsulates the entire LP, even on the aforementioned “Plume and Orange,” which captures that very feeling:
Go on, have another bump ’til it all feels right. Look at your crowd / They are so hale and hearty.
This stands as one of Howkins’ crowning achievements in Hale: a multifaceted, multi-instrumental work that, nevertheless, manages to remain cohesive and aesthetically unified. Like an edifice comprised of many varied stories whose fastidious architectural design remains consistent.
By the same token, Howkins’ vast relationship with music nimbly dodges the pat category of “just another indie-folk greenhorn with a getaway Bon Iver-esque cabin by the lake.” He first amassed attention during the early aughts as the lead guitarist for The Trouble With Sweeney, which opened for My Morning Jacket (no doubt one of alt-country’s indie behemoths, alongside pre-Foxtrot Wilco) and OK GO. Sweeney released a sum of three EPs and two LPs. These releases constituted the critically praised I Know You Destroy and Fishtown Briefcase, which twice landed them on Rollingstone.com’s coveted Editor’s Top Picks of the Year before they disbanded in 2004.
Bio-related info and images via Heyward Howkins @ http://heywardhowkins.bandcamp.com/