BY MICHAEL TOLAND
Five years after his untimely death, Rowland S. Howard still commands respect. Though never a household name, the Australian rock pioneer’s dark romantic songwriting and distinctive twangnoise guitar hugely influenced the downunderground and, by proxy, the world of alternative rock & roll. The two-CD (or four-LP) Six Strings That Drew Blood pays tribute to the power his work still commands, drawing tracks from nearly every project in which he had a hand.
The album kicks off square in the middle of Howard’s career with “Shivers” – though written when Howard was only 16 and first recorded by Birthday Party predecessor The Boys Next Door, the version included here is a winning live take from 1999. The Boys themselves represent with “After a Fashion,” a tuneful postpunk confection that almost seems like it came from someone else’s catalog (and proves that Nick Cave could sing well before The Good Son). The Birthday Party, the band for which Howard is probably most known and celebrated, weighs in with eight cuts, and not just the obvious. While “The Friend Catcher” (the group’s second single) and “Jennifer’s Veil” (arguably its masterpiece) are here, the rest come from deeper in the band’s catalog – “Say a Spell,” “The Dim Locator” and “Several Sins” not only represent Howard’s songwriting contributions, but also a more seething, menacing side to the band outside of the frenzied explosions.
After the BP, Howard joined Crime & the City Solution in the years when it was still essentially a Party acolyte, and “Six Bells Chime” and “Her Room of Lights” take full advantage of the talents Howard brought to the Berlin/Australian band’s inspiration. The disk also includes a take on the Lee Hazlewood/Nancy Sinatra oddity “Some Velvet Morning,” which retains its bizarre mesmer in the hands of Howard and his duet partner Lydia Lunch, and the almost lush “Wedding Hotel,” the highlight of Howard’s collaboration with British rock avatar Nikki Sudden. But the disk concludes with four tracks from These Immortal Souls, the first major band in which Howard was fully in charge. “I Ate the Knife” and “Marry Me (Lie! Lie!),” from the quartet’s ridiculously rare 1987 debut Get Lost (Don’t Lie), stand in for the striking debut, though one wonders why only two tunes were included, given the near-impossibility of finding a copy of the album. (The inclusion of the monstrous “‘Blood and Sand,’ She Said” would’ve been nice.) “So the Story Goes” and the epic masterpiece “Crowned,” both from the equally OOP 1992 follow-up I’m Never Gonna Die Again, close out part 1 by demonstrating that, while TIS’s craft may have gotten more polished, the band’s shivering energy and clouded power remained intact.
Disk two picks up where the first one left off with a more generous selection of tunes from I’m Never Gonna Die Again, including the menacing “Black Milk,” the rocking single “The King of Kalifornia” and the instrumental “Insomnicide,” which gives Howard a chance to shred his Jaguar to bits. Part two undergoes bifurcation via “Summer High,” a noise pop collaboration with Australian alt.rock quartet Magic Dirt that has Howard duetting with singer Adalita Srsen. Then the main course is served via several songs from his two solo LPs. 1999’s Teenage Snuff Film gets showcased by some fierce rockers (“Exit Everything,” “Dead Radio,” “Undone”), a piece of roiling scree (“Sleep Alone”) and a brilliant pop song (“Autoluminescent”). 2009’s Pop Crimes contributes more sedate performances, including the smart pop cuts “(A Girl Called) Jonny” and “Pop Crime” and the ballads “Shut Me Down” (brooding) and “Ave Maria” (lovely). The disk – and album – ends with the steely “The Golden Age of Bloodshed,” one of Howard’s finest tracks and as fitting an ending for his recorded career as anything in his catalog. Teenage Snuff Film and Pop Crimes feature Howard at his best, writing great tunes and playing with all the skronk, sensitivity and fire you could want, and the compilers deserve kudos for featuring them so heavily.
Track information for every song is included and the graphics are pretty cool, which make up for the lack of biographical text. Longtime Howard followers may complain about their favorite tracks being left out (see “‘Blood and Sand,’ She Said” above), but overall the setlist is carefully and lovingly chosen, and gives newcomers and fanatics alike a broad view of Howard’s prodigious talents. Six Strings That Drew Blood isn’t a one-stop shop – indeed, it will likely only fuel an obsessive appetite for the man’s work. But it’s an excellent summary of one of non-mainstream rock’s most underrated and singular artists.
DOWNLOAD: “Undone,” “Crowned,” “Autoluminescent,” “The Golden Age of Bloodshed,” “After a Fashion”
Read the Blurt review of Howard’s final album, Pop Crimes, right HERE.