Sometimes you have to admit defeat when you listen to something. Sometimes you can envision its potential, but it’s just not ‘there.’
So goes The Hale & Hearty.
Heyward Howkins. I feel like maybe he’s not sure what he’s trying to say. What he’s going for. There’s a potential there. I can see “Thunderin’ Stop” making great trailer music for a Little Miss Sunshine-esque film, or the end of a feel-good coming-of-age film about a guy who’s already 35 or 40. But so much feels disconnected and unsure of itself. The key to singing and dancing, and really anything musical- is confidence. “Spanish Moss,” “The Raucous Calls of Morning,” and “The Live Oak” could all be parts of the same song. Every line feels like the last. The emotion that usually makes music pop just isn’t present.
I keep waiting for a verse to stand out, or the drums to pick up, or the piano to give me a better sense of clarity than just a couple of chords. But it’s all blended together; it’s a hodge-podge of nonsense. None of it grabs you. An album has to hit you with a message or a feeling that you depict the more you listen to it, and the more I listen to The Hale & Hearty the more I have to stop because I just don’t get it. I can’t even listen to it casually; I get the urge to turn on something else to fill the background noise like when you skip over “Poker Face” because you’re really just not in the mood. It’s not a listener’s job to sit down and pick apart the melody and the lyrics they can only understand about 75% of to try and suck some marrow of a message or meaning or emotion from it. It’s supposed to appeal to an audience first, and then deliver more emotion and meaning after it’s been heard the eighth time and the listener’s already in love with it.
Now, it’s not completely bad! Don’t get me wrong, “Flash Mob” would make a great soundtrack while you and your friends eat watermelon slices and spit the seeds off your back porch while you watch the sun go down. It takes a lot of time to write lyrics that take a second or third listen-through to pick apart and understand. It takes some amount of brilliance to write a chunk of music composed of so many different instruments. Heyward Howkins has talent; he just doesn’t know how to use it.
It’s worth a look, at least. If the tracks stand out to you, I wouldn’t advise against buying one or two, but I have a sinking feeling that buying the whole album and listening to it three times would quickly ruin the one or two songs you originally got it for.
You can’t write Heyward Howkins off completely, but it might not be best to put all your faith in The Hale & Hearty either.
A successful publisher finds his life taking a turn for the surreal after a car accident with a jaded lover.
Sound familiar? That is the tagline to the 2001 film Vanilla Sky.
You see, Vanilla Sky had a soundtrack that played on simplistic tracks against an otherwise complex backdrop. Take for instance Paul McCartney’s song, featured on the soundtrack, by the same name. The rolling melodies carried a simple message with beauty, but without being set against the canvas of the film, it was lacking. They needed each other. Just as each track needed the context of the film and the film needed each track.
Philadelphia based Heyward Howkins’ The Hale & Hearty is like the deeper cuts to Vanilla Sky. Howkins’ rolls in on a minimalistic approach, but aims to leave a firm impression.
With help from beautiful harmonies, The Hale & Hearty drifts through tales of days past and memories that are not our own. Through the recurring theme of “feeling a deep connection to a time and place but simultaneously remaining on the outside” Howkins spins tales of his family history.
The Hale & Hearty is a very front heavy album for those looking to find something special, but well balanced for those looking for a poet. “Thunderin’ Stop” and “Hale & Hearty” lead off the album with great folk presence. These two tracks could single handedly carry the entire album for me, if I weren’t so attached to the poetry behind his vision. Touching on his family legacy “Spanish Moss” delivers a very personal message but sadly comes up rather empty if it doesn’t pertain to you.
The album continues down a road of poetry that just so happens to be set to music. In a beautifully sad but romantic track, “Plume and Orange” paints the story of the last two birds on earth. With the final two tracks “Cocaine Bill” and “Hudson Piers,” Howkins draws back to the mid-album minimalism, leaning heavily on his songwriting skills, of which there are plenty, and less on complex bridges and effects.
Now it is very easy to write off The Hale & Hearty as simply an array of poems lacking an easily identifiable foundation. And perhaps against the back drop of a grander vision, more could find a better association. But for now, Heyward Howkins remains a poet’s musician. One, I thoroughly enjoy.