John Howard has today released his latest EP Songs From the Morning, where he has covered songs from five artists who influenced him as he grew up in Bury and continue to have an impact on his writing as he prepares to release his eighteenth ‘solo’ LP later this year as he turns sixty-five.
Now, I feel I must caveat this by admitting I’m not generally a huge fan of cover albums or EPs. Studio 150 is the one Paul Weller album I will happily say is my least favourite. When I want to listen to John Howard I’ll pick The Dangerous Hours, The Night Mail or even Can You Hear Me OK? every time over the Randy Newman EP.
Covers are interesting as a window into an artist’s influences and frame of mind, of course. Despite not being the world’s biggest fan, I’m fully aware that I owe The Beatles for many musicians who have become my favourites: Weller, Exler, Krieg and of course Howard. But if I hit on a great singer songwriter, I want to hear them, not their forebears.
More often than not, then, if an artist releases a cover on its own, or a record consisting entirely of covers, I’ll listen a couple of times out of curiosity and then move on to something new.
And it’s this that makes my praise for Songs From the Morning all the more flattering to Howard, who’s done a superb job by all accounts.
Where this EP is successful is that, like all the great covers, it doesn’t try to imitate these huge artists or arrogantly make a few deft ‘improvements’ the originals. Howard is too clever to neglect his own style, bite off more than he can chew and try to copy those he himself describes as “writers who impacted on a young man just starting out on his own road to becoming a recording artist.”
He instead tries to make every track different. You immediately know it is Howard covering straightaway.
An expert of this craft now, all of Howard’s successful covers of the past (Bowie’s The Bewlay Brothers, Frame’s Small World and Reed’s Walk on the Wild Side) have been completely rearranged, with the former two, like From the Morning, replacing acoustic guitar with piano and the latter using extensive synths.
And this continues on Songs From the Morning.
The first Song From the Morning is a standout. Tom Springfield’s Morning Please Don’t Come was recorded by Tom and his better-known sister Dusty in 1969, with Howard keen to shine a light on his neglected solo recordings.
Guided by a superb string backing and a glittering melancholy-disco keyboard line, Howard writes his name all over it from the first few bars with his immediately recognisable vocals, and piano to give it extra depth. Dashes of percussion make it sparkle.
There’s a really interesting bass line which guides next track, the Mike Heron-penned You Get Brighter, a song Howard heard several times live with Heron’s Incredible String Band at the turn of the 70s.
Here Howard really lets loose, extending his superb vocal range and bringing in some of the hallmarks of his self-produced work: layered backing vocals, extraordinarily minimalist monotone guitar strums, maracas and handclaps.
For all the wonderful pomp of the first two tracks’ spangly keyboard arrangements, I can imagine that simple piano-and-vocal renditions would be popular choices if and when Howard decides to play live again.
I’ll admit to having embarrassingly little knowledge about Howard’s next influential artist, Fairport Convention’s Sandy Denny who Howard wanted to explore as a songwriter as much as a singer. The simple, slow piano and vocal introduction to The Lady is a bit less poppy than the preceding two tracks and most akin to Howard’s most recent Long Player Across the Door Sill. Howard adds some Storeys-esque synth to the main body of the song which winds its way around the piano skeleton perfectly.
The only song whose title doesn’t implicitly reference daybreak won’t be taking a large slice of the radio-play pie when it comes, for obvious reasons – but it’s a nice interlude and variation of style for the EP. It seems like a silly thing to say, but if you already like John Howard, you’ll like this.
A church organ introduces Tim Buckley and Larry Beckett’s Morning Glory, originally intended for the former. And Howard likewise opens up his vocal pipes from the first verse, undoubtedly the best exhibition of his incredible voice on the outstanding song of the EP. Like on You Get Brighter, the grand piano and artificial organ complement each other beautifully. When the tambourines come in halfway through, Howard’s vocals reach a crescendo.
An expert of making a full-sounding soundscape, Howard comes up with the goods again here, impressive considering the fact that when you listen, I mean really listen, it is a remarkably simple arrangement which absolutely doesn’t deserve to be as striking and emotive as it is.
Howard described this as “an utter joy to sing” – something which clearly comes through on the record.
Closing the EP we return to the pop sphere with a completely rearranged version of Nick Drake’s From the Morning, which Howard released as a single to promote the EP and describes as his favourite song by the posthumously revered singer-songwriter.
You can read a bit more detail about the tune here, but in terms of sequencing it is the perfect to close the record, almost going full-circle back to Morning Please Don’t Come. Driven by a tambourine beat and lush (but sparing) organ which gives way to the piano and bass in the chorus, it provides some stability while you catch your breath after the dipping and soaring Morning Glory, but is a stirring tune in its own right.
Said Howard: “When one considers what a dark place Nick was in by 1972 (when this song was released to close his Pink Moon LP), frustrated by his unexpected lack of success and suffering from a mental spin into an abyss from which he never returned, it’s astonishing that he could write such an upliftingly beautiful song, celebrating nature and his delight at the changing of day into night, the constant circle of life. I find that incredibly touching, which made recording this track even more affecting for me.”
And this reverence for Drake’s songwriting is evident on Howard’s earnest delivery and attention to detail in reinventing the backing.
The bass on this EP is a revelation. Whilst I doubt Andy Lewis will be worried about Shirley Lee or Wesley Doyle receiving a sneaky call from Spain asking for an audition, through perhaps a couple of his most pronounced and important self-recorded bass lines to date Howard adds (if you’ll pardon the pun) another string to his, er, bass.
But this EP is really all about Howard’s reinvention. Everything we knew about Howard, his superb voice, deep piano, interesting keyboard effects, are all evident. But here he has shown that he can sustain creative cover ideas over an interesting, listenable 20 minutes.
It’s worth remembering that Howard, who self-released this EP while work continues on his next full album didn’t have to do this – it’s a labour of love. His hand was not forced either by a record label’s accountants or writers’ block. As he did for Bowie, Howard treats his formative influences with respect and skill, and for a covers album so personal to an artist there can be no greater praise.
Songs From the Morning, then, is an EP which will do more than be consigned to the listened-once pile. This is one I’ll be coming back to. And even if you’re also not a huge fan of covers, you should take a punt on this – you might just be as pleasantly surprised as I was.
Songs From the Morning is available to stream or download now from all major retailers.