Alice Howe – Circumstance : Album Review

Describing herself as an old soul inside a 30-something millennial, Howe is hard-wired for her country folk rock’n’soul hybrid.

Release Date: 21st April 2023

Label: Know Howe Music

Format: CD / digital

Who’s up for some feisty female alt. country? Sorry to use the old currency, but neither America nor plain country serve quite well enough an evocation of where Alice Howe is coming from. Unashamedly more akin to the stylings, and sound, of, say, Mary Chapin Carpenter than perhaps latterday Turks (Turkesses?) like the Margos Price or Cilker, it is the prime jangle, underset with keyboards, that gives, along with her voice, that particular feel. A lower register alto, it is all warm and comforting, the arrangements snucking in elements of both primetime AOR and R’n’B, making for an agreeable and engaging listen.

Bostonians with a degree in medieval European history don’t always seek futures in the music biz, and, if they do, few succeed. Howe, with a 2019 debut disc, an EP two years ahead of that, is at that threshold, with the recognition and participation of a few influential players helping gel that transition. First amongst those is Freebo, a name familiar to students of the cosmopolitan and multigenred 1970s LA music scene, for so long the right-hand man and bassist for Bonnie Raitt. Second would be Will McFarlane, another Raitt alumnus, who took her to Muscle Shoals to lay down a couple of tracks. Hooked on the ambience, and drawing in inspiration from the walls of the venerated studio, the ghosts of all the greats looking in on down at her, that experience was pivotal. And that was where she returned to cut much of this second full length release. Freebo produces and plays bass and McFarlane plays some timeless guitar.

The album kicks off with You’ve Been Away So Long, her warm voice embedded in some pristine guitar and keyboard framings, the rhythm section a sturdy presence. Curls of tasty guitar seep out between her words, with soothing Hammond swirls covering all the other spaces. A handsome start and one that augurs well, the polish on the songcraft buffed up to perfect. Somebody’s New Lover Now follows as a classic tale of the discarded party, a bittersweet song of barbed acceptance. A sturdy strum of acoustic, over which the electric guitars chime, more of that organ gilding the lily. Vintage stuff. I guess Let Go is more of the same, some classy piano and steel entering the fray, although whether she is speaking to herself or that same person is left unclear: “You’ve got to be strong to let go“.

Love Has No Rules starts off with a delightful descending motif that screams Tom Petty, before becoming a decent swagger, the guitars all sounding slung low on the hip. Another song, as with Somebody’s New Lover Now, begs a punt on the singles chart, crossover or otherwise. Things I’m Not Saying is then a more sombre narrative, more stripped back, at least before the steel and keys ramp in, some muted brass accompanying them. The sort of sound that Muscle Shoals has built its deserved reputation upon. I think I have mentioned her voice, a smooth, warm rinse; let me mention it again.

Proving she isn’t prepared to let this record drift into filler, What About You is another Petty-esque southern rocker, which is as good a time to say her band are well up to Heartbreakers calibre. So, a little more info as to who they are might be helpful. Bandcamp comes up trumps, relaying the info that, alongside the above mentioned Freebo and Fielder, it is Jeff Fielder on electric guitar, Clayton Ivey on most of the keys and Justin Holder on drums, grizzled session vets all. Additional piano on certain tracks comes from Mark Jordan. Something Calls To Me dips back into mellow, with hushed bvs; the structure is mindful of the song constructs of the recently late and lamented Croz. A slightly swampy choogle, it shows she has most of the alleys of American music covered. Great slide and electric piano. The brass boys then coast back for the light soul-pop of With You By My Side, Vinnie Ciesielski on trumpet, and Mike Guinn on sax. A girlie chorus is tacked on here, the first moment where the cocktail here rings slightly wrong, Howe’s tones not needing the anodyne gloop they provide.

Line By Line struts a turn of direction that might just have some unison dance play in the bars of anywhere Georgia through Texas. Which is possibly the lyrical intent, and fair play to those that participate, but not so much my bag. It’s a fine tune, once I get that image out my head. Travellin’ Soul is more like it, another steamer from the swamp, a slow burn statement of intent, the drums a slow thwack to underline the road song lyric: “This is the life I chose, seekin’ truth along this road”. A final flourish, with It’s How You Hold Me, sees her channeling the full-on country ballad she has held back in reserve, showing her powder is plenty dry enough for lighters swaying in the sky. Sentimental? Sure, but that comes for free with this sort of ticket, and it is a corker.

A top class retro bit of work, this should see Howe ascend the rungs of rootsy Americana fast. Get her over here, for Ramblin’ Roots, Maverick or Black Deer and she will make a lot of new fans quick. Over and above, that is, those this record will make her.

Here’s Somebody’s New Lover Now:

Alice Howe online: website / facebook / twitter / Instagram

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