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"Every Kingdom"

Ben Howard – Every Kingdom
04 October 2011, 15:37 Written by Chris Jones

Ben Howard might have more reason than most to be grateful for October’s last gasp glimpse of an Indian summer, which sets up his debut album a treat. There can be no finer way to enjoy this record at its outset than strolling along sand-or-stony ground under unbroken blue. If autumn has already set in outside your window, you might have to take this on trust for the time being – but at least the end of summer affords the opportunity to establish whether Every Kingdom is genuinely evocative or simply a soundtrack to the relapse into short sleeves and flip flops. I’m inclined to think its initial heat haze is no mirage.

All that said, however, there is clearly more purpose, depth and ambition about this work, not to mention thematic human unease, for it to have been staged for summer days. Howard’s own brand of very fine folk guitar and soul-bearing vocals is smartly done and irresistibly likable, by which I do not mean to imply an offensive inoffensiveness. It might be a warm-hearted family album but the originality and vitality of first track ‘Old Pine’ does enough to confound all prior suspicion that this singer-surfer-songwriter might be just another okey-dokey low-key blokey folkie singing a song about a tree.

I admire the crinkle-cut of Howard’s jib and his atypical but also uncannily familiar voice, which offers a moderately distinctive distillation of Jose Gonzalez, Ray Lamontagne and at least half a dozen others. In fact, “Ben Howard sounds a bit like…” might make for a cutting-edge parlour game come Christmas with the in-laws. I’ll offer Whitley, who is (or was) Australia’s talented Gonzalez soundalike. The first person to say Jack Johnson loses the contest. The point is, this company is quality and his influences never overbearing, for which he deserves much credit – and while we’re on faintly distinguishing features, Howard also does well not to overdo his howling on ‘The Wolves’, though the song still goes on for an unnecessary extra minute. It’s but another factor that helps to create and balance both dynamism and familiarity on Every Kingdom without recall to gimmickry or mimicry.

‘Old Pine’ exhibits Howard’s strongest suite, progressing through multiple phases and signalling the general direction of things to come, most immediately the breezy surge and scamper of ‘Diamonds’ but also the rhythm and enthusiasm that buoy the music through musings personal and profound. If the first track acts as a weathervane, then ‘Keep Your Head Up’ – another of the strongest songs – is like the first front of autumn proper, a reserve to draw on through the bleaker seasons. Either side, however, things fall a little flatter, inevitable on an album with striking highlights. ‘Only Love’ and ‘The Fear’ are marked by predictable build and reliance on repetition; fortunately, there’s still lots of light and shade and they’re not bad songs. Likewise, the central revelation of ‘Everything’ that lends itself to the album’s title doesn’t quite work for me, but it’s already palm-of-the-hand stuff by then. Ben Howard is at his best on this record when at a canter; he is less engaging on tracks like ‘Black Flies’, where his lyrical heralding of winter and clever refrain is offset by the song’s overly generous proportions.

This is a largely enjoyable and inventive first album from a promising musician with strength and eloquence of expression. The more summery sound does not preclude a sense of anguish but the wintry world-weariness that starts to set in is also kept in check. Spun out over the length of this debut, the creativity flags in places and the more formulaic songs are the least fulfilling, yet Every Kingdom has the ingredients to succeed in a crowded scene. Ben Howard’s discernible charisma, composure and uncompromising ability should serve him well.

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