Heidi Howe - Be Good
Release Date: February 1, 2014
Record Label: sonaBLAST! Records
In the realm of spot-on RIYL sections, the one that compares Heidi Howe to Dolly Parton on the former's Bandcamp page has to be in the hall of fame. From the very beginning of the very first song – a jaunty, fiddle-laden country song called “Kind of Crazy” – Howe’s new album Be Good sounds like a collection of Parton b-sides. The most obvious point of comparison is Howe’s voice, which compares favorably to Parton’s in its nasally, twangy drawl. However, Howe also seems to be making an active effort on Be Good to create a record that could play alongside classic country LPs in the jukebox. The arrangements are gorgeous, wistful, and old-timey, with the instrumentation standing as the record’s biggest selling point. The acoustic guitars sound warm and lush throughout, and when a slice of mournful pedal steel floats through the proceedings – as it does on the dusky balladry of “Ruin Me” – it’s an automatic home run. 2014 hasn’t even arrived yet and Be Good is still over a month from its release, but within two tracks, this record was already something I wanted to recommend to people.
If there’s a problem with Be Good, it’s that Howe’s voice works considerably better for ballads than it does for up-tempo numbers. Where the peppier songs stray further into overt mainstream country territory – such as “I’m Done,” which is redeemed by an infectious electric guitar solo – the slower moments feel distinctly more like the type of vintage alt-country that I so ardently adore. For instance, the steady mournful rainfall of “Alright” reminds me of two of my favorite Americana records of 2013. The first, Patty Griffin’s American Kid, is actually quite similar to Howe’s record in both voice and musical style. The second was from Will Hoge, whose record, Never Give In, is going to take home my album of the year title for 2013. Moments of Howe’s arrangements – especially the electric guitar parts – remind me of Hoge. Considering the fact that the walls of classic organic instrumentation essentially made Never Give In for me, I don’t make that comparison lightly. I simply can’t stress enough how great Howe’s backing band sounds here.
There are plenty of great musical moments on Be Good, from the wash of steel guitars on “Souvenir” to the electric guitar climax of “Alright.” The songwriting, on the whole, is a bit more of a mixed bag. As I said before, Howe is better with ballads than she is with mid or up-tempo tracks. That’s actually another quality she shares with Griffin, though she doesn’t have the same soaring tour-de-force vocals that turn Griffin’s records into rousing emotional crucibles. Howe’s vocal performance is perfectly fair throughout: she rarely reaches, usually singing in the middle of her range and grooving along with the band in a fun, innocuous manner (see the title track). Her low register is actually quite nice, allowing for some good subtlety in resigned break-up tracks like “Stronger Than My Love.” But considering the album’s subject matter – Howe has identified the core theme of the record as addiction and how people either overcome it or wither inside of it – the record could do with a few more wrenching, emotive moments from Howe. As is, it usually feels like she’s taking it easy and having a lot of fun, which is great and completely respectable, but which also puts Be Good a bit closer to mainstream country than I generally like to stray.
With all of that said, Be Good is a solid record in a genre that I came to appreciate more than ever before in 2013. In a few weeks, I’ll unveil my top 50 records of the year, and a great many of them are folk, Americana, or alt-country albums. This was a year where Patty Griffin broke my heart with the utter hopelessness of “That Kind of Lonely”; it was a year where Will Hoge, the Civil Wars, Dawes, and Jason Isbell occupied 80 percent of my top five, all with Americana, country, or roots rock-indebted records that stressed storytelling and emotion above all else; it was a year where Keith Urban made a record that I legitimately loved, and a year where Kacey Musgraves subverted mainstream country music tropes by daring to be funny, flawed, and revealing in a way that most country songstresses don’t anymore. Howe’s got a bit of that Musgraves spirit on Be Good’s closing track, a fun and jaunty number that sarcastically namedrops a slew of different musicians and celebrities who have overcome addiction over the years. It’s the album’s most overt “you can do this” pep talk, but it resonates because Howe, like Musgraves, keeps her tongue firmly in cheek. She even finds time to reference a pair of Adams songs – “In My Time of Need” and “When the Stars Go Blue” – on the song’s bridge. So while Be Good may fall just short of greatness, you still want to hang out with Howe - or at very least go to one of her concerts - by the time it's over.