Howard Hello – S/T

Jim O’Rourke has proven to be one of the masters of marrying John Fahey-influenced acoustic guitar work and the ambient excursions of Brian Eno and Fennesz. Albums such as Bad Timing and Happy Days showcase his ability to alienate and disconcert with the best of them. But where O’Rourke’s experimental trips are better suited for esoteric tastes, Howard Hello manages to funnel the unique marriage into an easy-to-swallow tablet for just about anyone to enjoy.
Howard Hello is the combined forces of the ubiquitous Kenseth Thibideau (Tarentel, Rumah Sakit, Thingy) and Marty Anderson (Dilute). The duo’s “third Beatle” is Wendy Allen (The Court and Spark, Tarentel), who imbues celestial multi-tracked vocals on nearly every track, using only vowel sounds instead of words. As evident in the music, a lot of time must have been spent in the studio piling tracks upon tracks of atmospheric noise, as each song can be pictured with huge angel wings headed toward the heavens.
The seven-song eponymous debut is pregnant with beautiful acoustic guitar fingerpicking and watery synthesizers. Under the wash of synths are sweet melodies and rhythms; and because of the lack of drums and auxiliary percussion, the intertwining rhythms and melodies are forced to take on a beat-keeping disposition. Ranging from complex time signatures (“Hello”) to barely structured fieldtrips (“Prozac”), each song has plenty of leg room, deploying minimalism and modest instrumentation; but at the same time, evoking a sense of completeness and fullness.
The main strength of the album is the seamless blend of the organic with the inorganic. Album opener “Television” is a perfect example of this dichotomy. The song breaks the ice with light fingerpicking, as another guitar makes its foray. The second guitar is soon sliced and diced until it morphs into a barely recognizable set of blips and bleeps, a la Japanese experimentalist Nobukazu Takemura. Meanwhile, the light fingerpicking continues underneath as angelic voices float into the mix. Found sounds and a stream of fuzz ends the song as you are left twitching on the floor, trying to figure out how you can make it through the rest of the album without crying.
“Belief” continues the heavenly demeanor with synthesizers and more harmonized voices. The song builds to a slow but affective crescendo. Elsewhere, “Dream” is another track that slowly builds into an Eno-esque wall of reverberating noises and delayed beauty. These two songs, as well as album closer “Hello,” have a palpable transcendence to them, a sort of unrestrained energy that eases out in the most natural of moments.
The only shortcoming is the use of vocals that actually sound-out decipherable words. The raspy vocalist Marty Anderson uses a fragile, near-whisper voice that not only seems forced, but distracts from the rest of the album. Sure, the vocals provide variety, but the lyrics are a bit on the cheesy side: “Nothing is out of my control / Revolution is invisible.” The good news is that Anderson only sings on “Revolution” and “America.”
At times heart-wrenching and inspiring, and other times moody and brooding, Howard Hello delivers an album that is sophisticated and carefree at the same time. It’s an album that has its head with the stars yet manages to stay “down-to-earth,” an album that delivers a playful wistful nature as well as a serious undertone. If this is just a taste of the brilliance to come from this budding group, this reviewer will definitely be on the lookout for more. And for those of you curious to hear this perfect marriage of noise, please purchase the album. You shant regret it.