Ben Howard’s finger-picking style of guitar can be both pastoral and percussive, giving Every Kingdom a layered complexity that belies folk’s old cardboard genre box.
The British singer-songwriter’s initial release, out since last fall in his homeland but just seeing U.S. release this week, was produced by bassist/drummer Chris Bond in a converted barn studio — “neatly nestled,” Howard says, “between the moors and the sea.” In keeping, the album often has the feel of a last-call hootenanny, as songs take flight amid the whoosh of India Bourne’s cello and these billowing choral-inspired harmonies.
Perhaps the best example of Howard’s narrative musical sweep is “Old Pine,” which creeps up with a sweetly romantic opening stanza only to burst out of its shell by song’s end. His vocal style perfectly matches that creative curvature, stretching and pulling with an equal and opposite force as the tunes — from the Mumford and Sons-ish pub howlings of “The Wolves” to the sing-along sunshine-streaked anthem “Keep Your Head Up” to the intricately wrought “Three Tree Down” — journey across a surprising range of musical impulses.
If there is a complaint, it’s that Howard occasionally settles for the glass-smooth slack-rock stylings of Jack Johnson, a connection probably made easier because they share a passion (dude!) for surfing. But, before you know it, the far-more-adventurous Howard steers out of those too-quiet moments, and that’s when Every Kingdom comes into its own.
Like a sweeter, yet somehow more convoluted Nick Drake, Howard is at his best when travelling (as he memorably sings) in the “spaces between the happiness and the hardness.”