Canadian singer/songwriter Howie Beck would be forgiven for wondering whether he’d once inadvertently walked under a ladder while stepping through the discarded shards of a recently shattered mirror. To say that Beck hasn’t had the best of luck in his career would be a bit of an understatement.
He recorded his first album, Pop And Crash, in 1997 while recovering from glandular fever, which was followed up by 1999′s Hollow. All seemed to be go swimmingly – his second album was critically acclaimed, and several US television shows were using him on their soundtracks. Yet after 9/11, making music seemed of secondary importance to Beck, a fact reinforced when the co-founder of his record label, Easy Tiger, committed suicide. Easy Tiger folded shortly afterwards, and Howie Beck was left with no record label.
Now, six years on from Hollow, he’s back with a new deal and it’s clear that he’s spent his time well. Beck’s self-titled third album is an absolute gem, full of swooningly intimate, deliciously melodic little treasures. Beck’s songs are sad, yet never depressing, – after all, a man who can write a line such as “I need a zombie girl who’ll keep her head on” isn’t going to be all doom and gloom.
One name which keeps cropping up when talking about Howie Beck is that of the late Elliott Smith. It’s understandable in one sense – their voices are very similar, and there’s the same shuffling melancholy feel to many of these songs – but these songs have Beck’s personality stamped all over them.
My Low has a lovely muted trumpet and flamenco-style handclaps, while Sometimes is just glorious, showing off Beck’s understated, warm voice to its best advantage. He delivers a line like “she can never walk a straight line except sometimes in the morning” with just the right level of world-weary fragility, and even as the song gradually builds to its upbeat climax, that beautiful air of wistfulness remains.
Things perk up for one of the album’s standouts, the rallying cry to the broken-hearted of Don’t Be Afraid. Teaming up with that other quirky troubadour Ed Harcourt, Beck puts his arm round the listener and gives them a great big cuddle – “don’t be afraid if you’re all fucked up, everybody knows you’ll get through somehow”. It’s like Elvis Costello fronting Teenage Fanclub and, as such, is quite wonderful.
The acoustic shuffle of The Books Beside Her Bed is also a highlight (“she hasn’t cried in years ‘cos it’s not worth all the pain”) while fellow Canadian Leslie Feist adds some beautiful backing vocals to the gorgeous I Need Light. In truth, there’s not a bad track here, the immense attention to detail that Beck apparently lavished on these songs during production really paying off.
Apparently recorded in his bedroom, it’s about as far from lo-fi as you can get. The marvellous Everybody Sold Out adds touches of pedal steel guitar to the mix, while the achingly sad Please has a subtle string section that will melt the hardest of hearts.
Maybe it’s all a bit understated to appeal to everyone, but you get the impression that Howie Beck isn’t after mass celebrity and platinum records. Yet if you’re lucky enough to discover it, you’ll own a record that will keep you company for some years to come.