Darren Hayman, Alex Highton, Ralegh Long, Robert Rotifer and Ian Button are five lucky fellas to have their songs covered by rebooted 1970s singer songwriter John Howard.
Since his comeback more than a decade ago, following a 20 year or so hiatus, Howard has made up for lost time with a raft of original material and the occasional covers collections.
But whereas previous covers have mostly paid tribute to those that influenced his early career, such as Laura Nyro and Paul McCartney, here he passes a musical nod to the emerging and more established independent UK artists he has collaborated with in recent years.
For Long, whose track The Gift from his 2012 EP of the same name is covered here, getting the Howard treatment must be an especially pleasing honour. When Long sent us The Gift to review he cited Howard as a major influence. We helped match them up via email and since then their friendship has blossomed, they perform together and help promote each others releases and ventures, including Gare Du Nord Records, the label set up by Long, Button and Rotifer.
Howard’s version of The Gift shows Howard to be a musician who takes his time, who really listens to a song he is covering to ensure he can give it his own take and bring out a particular theme. His version of The Gift sounds likes the perfect thank you to a young musician he clearly admires.
A good cover should offer a new interpretation as well as pay tribute to the source material. Howard achieves that on all the tracks here, especially Song For Someone, from Alex Highton’s 2012 album Wooditton Wives Club.
After hearing Woodditton Wives Club, about Highton’s move from London to the Oxfordshire countryside with his family, Howard was clearly smitten, as we were when we reviewed it. It’s a wonderfully honest collection of acoustic guitar folk about family life and location. It’s also an album about looking back, learning from the past and moving on, common themes in Howard’s post comeback work.
Song for Someone is a track that I liked a lot but for me was overshadowed by others on the album such as You’ve Got The Trees. Howard though clearly homed in on it straight away and reinvents it as a great big old romantic piano ballad while achieving the neat trick of retaining the intimacy of Highton’s understated vocals. The pair’s mutual back slapping continues later this year when Howard appears on Highton’s forthcoming album.
Howard clearly likes covering Rotifer’s tracks. He did a great job turning Rotifer’s Creosote Summer, from 2012’s The Hosting Couple album, into a pop Waltz on a recently released Gare Du Nord sampler. He does another fine job on So Silly Now, a track about the relationship between a music fan and his collection from Rotifer’s 2013 album the Cavalry Never Showed Up. Howard brings to the table those extra few years of experience in the music business as if he really knows some of the famous names mentioned in the lyrics. He even finds time to unleash his Brian Wilsonoator (disclaimer: actual equipment may not exist) from his home studio in Spain. I never even thought of Pet Sounds hearing the original, now I can’t separate the two.
Ian Button gives such a summery, psychedelic pop shine to his music under his Papernut Cambridge moniker. Here Howard sounds strips away the psychedelia and gets to the heart of the song to really draw out its melody and lyrics. Rather than the lush twinkle of Button’s production, here Howard has focused on cellos, which ensure a 1960s feel is retained as well as serving to give the song an extra sadness.
As with Button and Rotifer, who provided two thirds of his backing band when he played at the Servant Jazz Quarters in London last year, Darren Hayman is another musical collaborator. Back in 2007 Howard was invited by Hayman to play on his first album as Darren Hayman and the Secondary Modern. The original is jolly folk pop but on Howard’s version the tone is sadder, the pace is slower and of all five the transformation is the most remarkable. I like the original but I adore this version.
Howard is enjoying a good streak in his ongoing comeback, especially with the release of his most recent album Storeys last year. Has the influence of Hayman, Rotifer, Long, Highton and Button been a factor in this recent fine run of creative form? Listening to his tender take on their tracks here that seems likely.
by Joe Lepper