The erstwhile Birthday Party/These Immortal Souls guitarist finally sees his swansong released in the States, a masterpiece of an album that ends his long, artistically fruitful career with an exclamation point.
BY MICHAEL TOLAND
His name may not be well known to folks who aren’t Australian rock obsessives and Nick Cave trainspotters, but trust us: Rowland S. Howard was a singular figure in postmodern rock ‘n’ roll. His distinctive guitar work, sort of an unholy cross between Duane Eddy and a circular saw, set a standard for a style of noisetwang guitar that has proved enormously influential. But there’s more to him than merely six strings that draw blood – he was also an ambitious, atmospheric songwriter, casting a spell of dimly lit rooms, rain-soaked hair and hearts throbbing with anticipation – of redemption or recidivism only Howard can say.
He was born in Melbourne in 1959 and would find inspiration in a Fender Jaguar, forming his first band and calling it The Young Charlatans. After fine work with pioneering chaos-blues terrorists the Birthday Party (originally the Boys Next Door, the group featured future Bad Seeds Nick Cave and Mick Harvey), Aussie-Berlin art rock troop Crime & the City Solution and a highly underrated duo album with Nikki Sudden, Howard launched These Immortal Souls, an unfortunately short-lived quartet featuring Epic Soundtracks, brother Harry Howard and girlfriend Genevieve McGuckin that brought brilliantly to life his very personal vision of glowering, emotionally grinding brood rock. Two now extremely rare albums (1987’s Get Lost (Don’t Die!) and 1992’s I’m Never Gonna Die Again) and a Lydia Lunch collaboration called Shotgun Wedding later, Howard finally released his debut solo album Teenage Snuff Film in 1999, a record that is perhaps his most fully-realized statement of his particular art. Then followed a period of under-the-radar retrenchment, outside of the occasional guest appearance.
Pop Crimes, his second and final solo album, was released overseas only two months before his untimely passing from cancer in 2009 (and a decade after Teenage Snuff Film). It didn’t get an American issue then, but Fat Possum has rectified that situation with a belated Stateside release. For those who didn’t want to spring for the import, this is a boon. For the rest of the world, Pop Crimes is still well worth hearing.
“(I Know) A Girl Called Jonny” opens the record as Howard pays tribute to duet partner Johnnie Standish over a girl group rhythm, a focus on his appealingly monotone baritone and a guitar line that goes for thrum more than thrash – a clear signal that the record will simmer more often than it burns. That’s hardly a problem, however – the sense of repressed violence and emotion gives the angry “Shut You Down” and brooding “Avé Maria” trembling power, allowing them to burrow into your ear canals rather than invade.
When Howard does allow his more abrasive side to control his ax, the licks cut rather than slash, supporting songs like the title track, “Wayward Man” and “The Golden Age of Bloodshed” instead of bludgeoning them. Howard also applies his smoky aesthetic to a pair of divergent covers, crawling slowly and lethally through Talk Talk’s “Life’s What You Make It” and sending Townes Van Zandt’s “Nothin’” into a strange, discomfiting dimension.
Aided immeasurably by cohorts Mick Harvey (his former BP and Crime bandmate) and J.P. Shilo (the former Hungry Ghosts leader who also plays in Harvey’s solo band), Howard stays faithful to his unique sense of rock and gives us one final masterpiece. Pop Crimes ends his long, artistically fruitful career with an exclamation point instead of a period.
Ed. note: Pictured above is part of a mural that artist Casey Tosh painted on a lane wall in Ballarat near Melbourne, Australia. Meanwhile, filmmakers Richard Lowenstein (Dogs in Space) and Lynn-Maree Milburn (We’re Living on Dogfood) made a 110 minute documentary on Howard titled Autoluminescent: Rowland S. Howard which had a limited release in October of 2011. Read a review HERE, and watch the trailer for it, below. And soon, happening in Melbourne as part of the Melbourne Festival (October 10th – 26th) and at Sydney Metro Theatre (November 1st) will be Pop Crimes: The Songs Of Rowland S. Howard Concerts. Featured musicians include Mick Harvey, Genevieve Mcguckin, Harry Howard, Craig Williamson, Brian Henry Hooper, J.P. Shilo, Adalita, Hugo Race, Jeffrey Wegener, Jonnine Standish, Conrad Standish and T.J. Howden.