“Every Kingdom,” Ben Howard (Communion/Universal Republic)
Ben Howard is a young U.K. surfer dude who is also a singer-songwriter, but that doesn’t make him a British Jack Johnson.
On his “Every Kingdom,” now getting released in the United States, Howard displays more of a Bon Iver voice and a Ray LaMontagne attitude. There’s lots of Paul Simon and John Martyn in the mix, too.
Artists usually don’t appreciate being described as a composite of other artists, but Howard is so — um, reductive — of his predecessors, it seems fitting and unavoidable. He’s good, just not great.
Howard’s primary handicaps on “Every Kingdom” are his overlong songs and his lack of versatility.
On an individual basis, the tracks are often gorgeous and evocative; Howard dishes out insinuating melodies, and the guitar work is alluring. Meanwhile, his high, earnest rasp is commanding and hard to shake, especially in the fairly minimalist, folkish contexts of “Every Kingdom.”
Howard adds breathy textures to his delivery on “Diamonds” to evoke heavy resonance when he sings, “All I am is the bones you made for me/So garishly clean/White as the horses that carry me away.” Also, he does a few fascinating vocal acrobatics against the primal chanting and chugging rhythm of “The Wolves,” and his voice periodically trembles in “The Fear,” which builds to a heady rumble as Howard frets, “I’ve been worrying that we all live our lives in the confines of fear.” In addition, Howard achieves low-key mesmerization on “Everything” with such wrenching observations as, “You don’t care about these scenes I treasure.”
Although the tone is mostly dark, the mood isn’t relentlessly grim: “Only Love” is nervously tender, and “Keep Your Head Up” is straightforward encouragement: “Keep your head up, keep your heart strong.”
Ben Howard has an interesting voice and a promising future. He merely needs more finesse.