Listening, belatedly, to Pop Crimes, Rowland S. Howard‘s second solo album is hard to contemplate without considering that Howard was suffering with what would prove to be terminal liver cancer during its recording, passing away while promoting the LP. Nevertheless, that feeling of listening to a ghost aside, Pop Crimes stands as a strong final chapter in the musical career of an uncompromising musician whose work in The Boys Next Door, The Birthday Party and beyond marked him out as an inventive guitarist and songwriter.
Pop Crimes contains six new Howard compositions, as well as covers of Talk Talk’s ‘Life’s What You Make It’ and Townes Van Zandt’s ‘Nothin”. The album saw Howard working with JP Shilo (credited with guitar, violin and other general strangeness), bassist Brian Hooper (who also co-wrote the title track and appears on ‘Wayward Man’ and ‘The Golden Age Of Bloodshed’) and saw Howard reunited with former Boys Next Door / Birthday Party colleague Mick Harvey (here on drums and organ). Pop Crimes was produced by Lindsay Gravina.
In spite of his ailing health, Howard’s voice had rarely sounded so interesting, containing a gruff tenderness and the barest trace of a sneer at the very edge of his delivery, while his guitar playing drew on the same style of layered anti-playing – skeletal notes that descend into howling static – that made The Birthday Party’s axeman such a thrilling proposition. The two covers are cases in point. Covering Mark Hollis and Tim Friese-Greene’s epic Eighties hit ‘Life’s What You Make It’ was always going to be a brave move, but Howard / Harvey / Shilo give it an added edge of grungy nihilism, stalking bass and droning organs augmenting a defiant, reflective but bitter Howard, the spaces in his vocal allowing his distinctive, subtle guitar riffs to feed through. As with all the best covers, Howard takes ‘Life’s What You Make It’ into new, uncharted territory, taking Talk Talk’s optimistic original and turning it into a darker, somewhat sinister paean to individualism. Meanwhile the cover of Van Zandt’s ‘Nothin” showcases Howard’s strangled vocal style, a world-weary but mysterious quality with doomed blues backing from Howard / Harvey / Shilo that sounds like a nag sluggishly bearing its rider back from unspeakable horrors.
Occasionally there are small moments of levity which leaves you with the impression that this LP isn’t uniformly misanthropic, even though it really is. Opener ‘(I Know) A Girl Called Jonny’ is one. A duet with Jonnine Standish of Australian Blast First Petite band HTRK, ‘A Girl Called Jonny’ is an occasionally joyous, mostly dark Phil Spector-esque ballad with simple organ and drums, and gentle bass from HTRK’s Sean Stewart (who was found dead in the spring of 2010). Howard’s vocal weaves alongside Standish’s detached own while whining guitar drifts alongside. ‘Pop Crimes’ is another. The album’s title track consists of ponderous bass, guitarwork that straddles Howard’s punk-blues licks from ‘Nick The Stripper’ and the searing feedback / noise of ‘The Friendcatcher’ while Harvey’s drums contain a jazzy swing which has that effect of lightening the mood ever so slightly. I have no idea what the lyrics are on about, but it’s delivered with a sense of muted anger by Howard and so I guess he’s railing at the pop music industry somehow.
Elsewhere there is a sense of the personal drifting into the songwriting. ‘Wayward Man’, with its great wedges of metronomic bass and carefully-wrought feedback, has lyrics that find Howard resignedly accepting that he can’t be the wayward man whoever he’s singing to wants him to be. The whole thing hints at rage, at darkness, like an updating of Leonard Cohen’s sinister ‘I’m Your Man’. Likewise, ‘Ave Maria’, which is an introverted, quiet and sorrowful piece, all fragile percussion and gentle layers of guitar, organ and plucked bass. The piece has a filmic, emotional quality, marking it out as a low-key but tear-jerkingly moving highlight of Pop Crimes. As the music fades away, Howard closes the track with the words ‘we didn’t dance upon our wedding day’, singly the most regretful thing I’ve yet heard in a song. Then again, this is the man that wrote ‘Shivers’, perhaps the most beautifully depressing song ever written.
The album was supported posthumously by ‘The Golden Age Of Bloodshed’, which is a wry, apocalyptic piece that is strangely cynical at times; white hot feedback is draped laconically across and through an bleak, sparse backdrop. It’s hardly the most optimistic way to close out an album, but if you had terminal cancer, with no liver transplant on offer, I wonder how cheerful you would be.
First published 2012; edited and re-posted 2019.
(c) 2019 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence