Don Howland

Land Beyond the Mountains

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It's hard to avoid comparisons to Captain Beefheart at his earliest and bluesiest when hearing this album, though Howland's a lo-fi Captain Beefheart. His voice usually sounds as if it's being squeezed through a transistor radio, with the mix emphasizing the higher and tinnier components. You could perhaps throw in Roky Erickson as an influence to his slightly deranged-sounding musings, which often throw in creepy images of violence, destruction, stench, despair, and disgust. "Some roots make your colon feel like a furrow a tractor plowed," goes one line, for instance. That itself comes from "Some Roots," which borrows from the cadence and structure of Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit" within such a different setting that the reference point might pass unnoticed. Howland breaks up the largely original program with covers of songs by Tom Rapp, Jessie Mae Hemphill, and Furry Lewis (as well as using words by Edgar Allen Poe in "The Conqueror Worm"), perhaps to subtly illustrate that such songwriting is ingrained in the American tradition. There's some skill and wit to these slightly gruesome concoctions, in the cornucopia of Americana instrumentation and the ghostly, ghastly textures and embellishments. ("[I Am In] Hell," as an example, sets creepy-crawly guitar figures against funereal organ.) The crazed-man-on-the-edge attitude sounds a little manufactured, though, and those wracked, pinched vocals get grating.

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