Rowland S. Howard

Pop Crimes

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AllMusic Review by

It is a tragic irony that Rowland S. Howard's finest solo work was released a mere two months before his untimely death from liver cancer -- he was waiting for a transplant. Howard wasn't exactly prolific after the Birthday Party split in the '80s. He worked a lot in that decade as a founding member of Crime & the City Solution fronted by Simon Bonney, and he collaborated with a host of artists including Nikki Sudden, Genevieve McGuckin, Barry Adamson, Jeremy Gluck and, most famously, Lydia Lunch. He also formed These Immortal Souls, who released a couple of excellent records. But Howard was largely silent after 1992, at least until the issue of his excellent Teenage Snuff Film in 2000. He was emerging from his long exile near the end of the decade with guest appearances before recording Pop Crimes in early 2009 with Mick Harvey on drums and organ, and J.P. Shilo on bass (save for a couple of tracks) and violin. The album is a slow, stellarly recorded collection of rough-'round-the-edges rock, with Howard in better voice and showing more energy than on any post-Birthday Party record. The eight-song set includes two covers, including a fantastically moody, hypnotically expressive reading of Talk Talk's "Life's What You Make It." The originals reveal Howard in fine form as a "pop noir" songwriter, from the opener "(I Know) A Girl Called Jonny" (with Johnnie Standish on duet vocals) all the way through to the album's true jewel "The Golden Age of Bloodshed," at its end, with plenty of stops between. On Pop Crimes, Howard's songwriting uses classic elements from early girl group rock, country, and film music, creating infectious melodies that are then often bent by his words to create mood, tension, and texture; they end up sounding temptingly dangerous: think Lee Hazlewood, Ennio Morricone, Doc Pomus, Lou Reed, Phil Spector, and Leon Payne all rolled into one. Howard was also a highly original guitarist whose style is inimitable and has proved influential; he was an architect of the Birthday Party's and Crime & the City Solution's sounds, and a real influence on the sonic beginnings of the Bad Seeds. That too, is on full display here: check the way he uses both James Burton and Duane Eddy in the title track, early-'60s girl group balladry filtered through Gothic country to create a suspenseful, dark sensuality in the opening cut; plodding "Ghost Riders in the Sky"-esque country & western, loneliness, and thick wall of noise darkness in "Nothin'," and then there's the jumbled feedback, fragmented power chords, and slippery, sparse lead lines on "The Golden Age of Bloodshed" -- that also contains some fantastic violin playing from Shiloh and the finest lyrics in Howard's catalog. Pop Crimes may be Howard's last will and testament, but as such it's a physically forceful, deeply emotive, dramatic finish; full of memorable songs and unforgettable moments that make it a high-water mark in Australian rock.

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