Finding new and different bands and artists to listen to is one of the main reasons I started writing this blog. But the thing with new and different is, they’re unknown, so how do you find them? Sometimes it’s something with too much buzz to ignore, sometimes it’s me finally get around to an artist or genre I’ve knowingly neglected for too long. Sometimes, it’s a random tweet by Jason Isbell off handedly mentioning an artist or album. And by sometimes, I mean one time. And by one time, I mean that time he mentioned Ben Howard and I Forgot Where We Were.
Coming with Isbell’s recommendation, and based on the no nonsense cover art, I was expecting some pretty straight forward, probably guitar based troubadour type stuff. But straight away, Small Things offers a lot more than that. Effected guitars, moody piano and layers of atmosphere. It’s a sound backed up by Rivers in Your Mouth, just with added drums for a little more momentum.
Sometimes, all of these layers would stand out to me as trying to over compensate for a lack of substance or foundation. But Howard makes sure you can hear that substance, you can hear that foundation. These are solid songs that would work if it was just him and an acoustic guitar. He’s just decided to build a little more around them.
Then comes In Dreams, guitar pickin’, stripped back awesomeness. With little more than a kick drum to back it up and a little fiddle, this is basically just Howard’s voice and down home bluegrass with a modern polish that hints at the songs that precede it, without losing any of the traditional charm.
She Treats Me Well continues that more traditional approach. No elaborate production or artificial sweetening. Just acoustic instruments making their way through an acoustic groove and perfect vocal harmonies. And while I would traditionally prefer this kind of natural sound over the lush sweeping sounds of earlier songs, when that lushness returns with Time is Dancing, Howard and I Forgot Where We Were have already proven their bonafides with this kind of sound, that it fits the flow of this album perfectly.
A song like End of the Affair encompasses this album really well and what works. From the delicate opening minutes, to the trippy, processed second half, it covers the extremes of I Forgot Where We Were, yet still works as a cohesive whole. Which is the biggest strength of this album and Ben Howard. These conflicting approaches of simplicity and elaborateness, that somehow never actually conflict. Ben Howard has the songs that stand on their own, while also knowing how to pile on those little extras, without ever overpowering their core.