Thursday, October 22, 2009

Getting ugly with Rowland S Howard's "Pop Crimes"

One of the dangers for me in walking into Melbourne’s Polyester Records, is that, no matter what I have gone in there to buy, they always seem to be playing something else which I end up buying as well.

Yesterday, it was Rowland S Howard’s recent release, Pop Crimes. I was kind of conscious of the overall Nick Cave-esque feel to it all – the dark, gritty voice; the backings that seem to be coming from dingy back lanes at night – and so, when I learned that Rowland S Howard was originally from Birthday Party, I was kind of pleased with myself for noticing the Cave connection.

The music here takes you into a shadowy world, where things are kind of slow and hazy, and where love is sleazy, seedy, sexy and, for the most part, short-lived.

Pop Crimes opens with the perfect song to usher you right into the pit of this world, a shady duet that Howard sings with Jonnine Standish, ‘(I Know) A Girl Called Jonny’ with such great lines as “She’s my narcotic lollipop”.

Most of the songs on this album are pretty much filled with bitterness, like the self-loathing that slithers through ‘Shut You Down’, the tale of a man who seems to have somehow descended into life’s gutters, “Standing in a suit as ragged as my nerves”; and yet your heart breaks for him as he sings those lines “I miss you so much” which such raw, unadorned loneliness.

The instrumentation throughout Pop Crimes is mostly just bare guitar, bass and drums but is garnished here and there with violin or organ or odd percussion, giving it shady, shadowy colours, like the clanging, lumbering beat in ‘Life’s What You Make It’, the track, incidentally, that convinced me I just had to buy this album.

The title track is the sort of song that would sing to you in a cheap late night bar, over a glass of whisky, where people reminisce about love gone wrong, and about how bad and mean and mighty unclean the world is, but to a wonderful funky beat and electric guitar riffs.

There’s the swaggering beat of ‘Nothin’’; the rough and bluesy guts of ‘Wayward Man’, with lines like “I do all my best thinking unconscious on the floor” and “I’m the fly in the ointment, Your constant disappointment”; the tender sadness of ‘Ave Maria’, and the black hymn, rocking along to everything that’s ugly and dirty, in ‘The Golden Age of Bloodshed’.

It’s music that is always rough and raw, music that lets itself wallow and that feels like it might actually be proud to be bitter and twisted.

I gather Rowland S Howard doesn’t do a lot of recording in his own right, but Pop Crimes certainly mounts a pretty irrefutable case that he should do more. Listen to it alone, late at night, with a bottle of whisky at your side, and take comfort in the fact that sometimes it’s good to get ugly.

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