Defrocked and Kicking the Habit

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From the Lucien Freud-like, flaws-and-all cover painting to the sardonic title -- Soltero hails from Boston, the unwitting capital of the Catholic Church's child molestation scandal -- Tim Howard's sophomore effort continues the painfully honest country-folk musings about love gone mostly wrong first heard on Science Will Figure You Out. Unlike that recording, which was essentially a solo project with the Mobius Band helping out, Howard entered the studio this time with his own band -- Casey Keenan (drums), Ben Macri (bass), and Alexander McGregor (guitar, keys) -- and fleshed out Soltero's sound to strong effect. He's also added horns, a viola, and an accordion, among other instruments, to take some of the spotlight off his banjo while broadening the group's sonic palette. Howard's bitter but enduring outlook is still the main attraction, however, and opens the record with a humorous ode to irony and regret, "I'll Be a Writer." It's a gorgeous waltz sung in the deadpan manner of the Silver Jews' David Berman: "I'll be a writer when I finally go deaf/In the manner of whoever they say is the best/Committing to paper the chances I have missed/The girls I have loved, the dogs I have kissed." The news may be bad, but the way Howard tells it often evokes a smile amid the tears. Without those few light touches, mostly lyrical in nature, Defrocked and Kicking the Habit might have been too heavy for even the hardest cynics to endure. With them, Howard reminds listeners that a sense of humor is the best survival tool for life's myriad disappointments -- some good songs don't exactly hurt, either.

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