John Howard & the Night Mail

John Howard / The Night Mail

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John Howard & the Night Mail Review

by Stephen Thomas Erlewine

A veteran of the post-Bowie, post-McCartney British pop of the mid-'70s, John Howard received an unexpected comeback in the new millennium once his Kid in a Big World saw reissue on RPM Records in 2003. Soon, his vaults not only were cleared -- first came Technicolour Biography, a collection of demos, then Can You Hear Me OK?, which gathered remainders -- but he returned to active duty, issuing sharply crafted collections of exquisitely sculpted pop over the next decade. All of these are worthwhile but 2015's John Howard & the Night Mail, his first effort with a backing band -- he's joined by guitarist Robert Rotifer, bassist Andy Lewis, and drummer Ian Button -- is something special, a robust pop album that recalls the feel of the '70s without seeming like a throwback. To an extent, Howard always operates in this mode -- he seems habitually unable to avoid melodies that soar -- but pairing with the Night Mail turns his gorgeous songs into full-blooded, majestic drama, music that envelops through its movement. As sweeping as John Howard & the Night Mail is, one of the keys to its resonance is how Howard retains an eye for telling detail. It's not an accident that he covers Aztec Camera's "Small World": he's fond of such intricate, delicate vignettes and, beneath those honeyed melodies, he shows a similar flair in his original material. This knack has been displayed time and time again on his new millennial records but what makes this 2015 album pop is the addition of the Night Mail, a sympathetic trio that helps his songs pop, whether it's the stop-start soft psychedelia of "Intact & Smiling," the circling triplicates of "London's After-Work Drinking Culture," or the deft piano boogie of "Control Freak." Here and elsewhere on this tight 11-track album, Howard makes beautiful pop that rocks and that combination of momentum and craft turns John Howard & the Night Mail into one of his very best albums.

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