“Twenty-four years old and writes like he’s about two-hundred and twenty. I don’t know where he comes from, but I’ve got a good idea where he’s going. We went away believers, reminded how goddamned good it feels to be turned on by a real Creative Imagination.”
That quote was taken from the liner notes of John Prine’s 1971 self-titled, debut LP. Yet Kristofferson’s words prove equally applicable to the debut release from Portland, Oregon-based singer-songwriter Barna Howard. At just 27, his is a voice that offers insights into our selves and our interactions with others. Each phrase crafted and whittled until each breath proves meaningful and essential.
They say that beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder. If this is true, I want the eyes of Barna Howard. I hope, one day, to view the world with half the clarity that Howard writes his songs. He paints a series of vignettes, shedding light on those moments never cast as the subject of the camera’s eye. Too trivial for documentation, these are the snapshots that comprise life. A grandmother’s laugh. The knotty, grass and gravel covered knees of children playing in the yard.
The album opens with “Horizons Fade”, a reflective piece that finds Howard grappling with a fondness for his Missouri home and the satisfaction that comes with the knowledge that his decision to leave has helped to define him. Howard’s understanding of his roots appears to have crystallized since viewing them from afar. He’s content with his decision to depart, despite the genuine ache that comes with an absence of friends and family. These sentiments are echoed later in the release on “It Hurts to Know.”
On “Promise, I won’t Laugh and “I Don’t Fall Much Anymore” Howard crafts narratives of lost love with the same powerful remorse that gave life to Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks. Unlike those Dylan tunes, Howard’s are written with a greater distance between the present and the pain. He spoke of the effect that this space had on his ability to write lead single “Promise I Won’t Laugh” in his interview with Creative Loafing:
“…it’s kind of the song that I always wanted to write. Just to kind of bring across the point of celebrating it instead of being sad it happened. We were sad for a reason, and that reason was because that thing that was there wasn’t there anymore, and when it was there it was great. And just because it’s gone doesn’t mean it’s a bad thing, it still lives on and it’s still celebrated for me.”
Detractors will inevitably point to the album’s music as redundant. But those willing to listen will recognize that the continuity of the guitar play allows a greater focus on the main event – the writing. Besides, the finger picking is immaculate. It offers a rhythm and tone reminiscent of Townes Van Zandt. The strength of the release makes it easy to forget that this is a debut, and Howard has an entire career to explore new sounds.
Like Kristofferson watching Prine play for the first time in that dimly lit Chicago bar, records like Howard’s and Hip Hatchet’s Joy and Better Days have reinvigorated my belief that some of music’s most powerful contributors require no more than an acoustic guitar and a fresh perspective. They serve as a reminder that at the end of the day, you better have something to say, and you better say it with conviction. They are songwriters that bring us closer to truth. What more could you ask from art? Grab your copy of the Barna Howard LP from Mama Bird Recording Co.
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Written by Rob Peoni
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