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Charles Howl

Sticking With You: Charles Howl, Live in London

19 January 2018, 18:00 | Written by Joseph Foley

New Cross taps 'n’ taxidermy joint, the Montague Arms, is a suitably esoteric venue for an artist who’s made a comfortable home within the left-field of South London’s indie scene.

Charles Howl’s triumphant return to our glorious capital comes after a sojourn to Amsterdam, where he’s been hard at work putting together his sophomore effort, My Idol Family. Tonight, he showcases a newly honed aptitude for neat, hooky songwriting, which makes a formidable easel for well-placed lashings of classic pop, shoegaze and sardonic psychedelia.

The band, all monochrome and moddish like voyagers from a dark alternate Carnaby Street, strike up album-opener "Death of Print". It’s a strong start to the set, too, piercing an introductory miasma of synth with an organ hook that grabs you by the big lapels and lurches in to shimmering life as Howl’s vocal intone’s sweetly over a tight lattice of bass, synth and backbeat.

Another big hitter, in the shape of last October’s single, "The Dinner Party", is up next. Howl’s lyrics take a wry look at the excruciating politics of social interaction, all set to a fat, languid synth underpinned with a janky rhythm part that maintains the hard edges in what could have been a shroomy blancmange of textures.

Now, Charles is on record insisting he’d like to move past the "psych" label that’s dogged him since his 2015 debut, Sir Vices. He’s been successful to a large extent, but his sound is so inextricably bound up in the mores of various '60s pop genres that he’s almost trippy-by-association. Take the deliciously woozy chanson of "American Boy", for example, which takes the studied naïvety of France Gall and brings it bang up to date with an arrangement rooted firmly in post-punk.

The Velvet Underground are also a constant, if welcome spectre looming over the whole affair. Their influence on Howl comes across especially during "Never Forget What You Are", which references the sweetly boneheaded piano of "I’m Sticking With You" before building in to a climax that put me and my companion in mind of late-period Beatles.

Reed and co. are a more overt influence on tonight’s closer, "Meet Lou’s Needs", an acerbic, detached take on on the leather-jacketed wannabe’s found tirelessly snarling in the anterooms of party houses the world over. Tonight, it’s played gamely by the band, but doesn’t quite pack the punch of the show’s impressive opening salvo.

At times, this does feel like music defined by its ingredients. From the obvious grounding in the trendier pockets of the '60s pop canon to the washed out, shoegazy vocal style, there’s little here that you couldn’t trace a direct lineage from. That said, this is an artist who’s still finding his own voice, and it’s already a far more interesting prospect than it was just over 2 years ago. Howl’s skill as a songwriter and arranger is a thing to behold, and hopefully it’s only a matter of time before he transcends the weight of his influences.

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