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The Graham Album Review #2154

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Alice Howe: Circumstance

(Independent release, as broadcast on WVIA-FM 5/10/2023)

Singer-songwriters come in a rich variety of musical personas, styles and general approach. Back in the 1960s, when the genre was being established with the folksingers of that era starting to do their own compositions, most of them took on the acoustic guitar-dominated folk sound, until Bob Dylan went electric. But that was over 60 years ago. There is still a fair number of acoustic-guitar strumming folkies plying their trade as singer-songwriters. But they do tend to go electric on occasion. This week, we have the new second album by a singer-songwriter who has gone for the classic electric sound, and gone to a classic studio to make it. It’s Alice Howe, and her new album is called Circumstance.

Alice Howe has led a somewhat peripatetic life. She grew up in Newton, Massachusetts, and was surrounded by her parents’ record collection of artists like Taj Mahal, Mississippi John Hurt, Joan Baez and Joni Mitchell. That put her somewhat at odds with people of her own generation, but the music was always important for her. After graduating from Smith College with a degree in Medieval European history, she settled in Seattle, working in a music store, camping and playing local gigs on weekends.

But with a relationship ended, she decided to concentrate on being a musician, and made an EP before leaving Seattle for going back to her home area. In her networking at folk conferences, she met bassist Freebo, who is known for his several years working with Bonnie Raitt, and also recorded with Jackson Browne, Ringo Starr and others. He was taken by Ms. Howe’s music and voice and the began a long collaboration. He worked with her on her 2019 debut album Visions recorded in California.

On a cross-country tour, Ms. Howe made a pilgrimage to Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, where everyone from Aretha Franklin to the Rolling Stones recorded. With Freebo, aided by some of the studio players there and another Bonnie Raitt alumnus, guitarist Will McFarlane, Howe recorded three complete tracks. She was about to return to record more when COVID hit, and the rest of the album was delayed by two years. But now it is out and it’s a tasteful combination of the lyrical introspection of folk-based songwriters with electric band backing. It doesn’t quite go all-out rock, but the backing usually has a couple of electric guitars, occasionally a blues feel along with some more acoustic moments.

Ms. Howe’s breakup of her relationship, which precipitated her move Back East apparently provides the grist for several songs about separation, but there are also a couple of straight-out love songs, and one that considers the state of the world.

In the band on this album, besides bassist Freebo, are guitarists Jeff Fielder, who worked with Ms. Howe on her earlier recordings, and Wil McFarlane, organist Clayton Ivey, and drummer Justin Holder.

Opening is You’ve Been Away So Long, one of several songs about being apart from one’s significant other. Like much of the album, the musical backing is the tasteful rock that evokes the kinds of records that producer Freebo was involved with in the past like Bonnie Raitt and Jackson Browne. <<>>

The track called Somebody’s New Lover Now puts a set of unhappy lyrics with a bouncy pop tune setting. I think it’s one of the highlights of the album. <<>>

Another side of relationships comes on Love Has No Rules which in a different arrangement might make it as country song. <<>>

What About You is more of straight-out rocker, and is more of a love song in the present tense lyrically. <<>>

The recording venue, Muscle Shoals has been known for their classic soul sound. Ms. Howe takes advantage of that on the song With You By My Side, even adding a touch of Gospel influence. <<>>

Taking a bluesier direction is Travelin’ Soul with more of the musical ingredients associated with the Muscle Shoals sound. It’s the one instance in which Ms. Howe’s lyrics comment on the state of the larger world. <<>>

The confessional singer-songwriter side of Ms. Howe comes out on Line by Line which nevertheless is given a more electric treatment. It turns out to be another highlight of the album. <<>>

Circumstance ends with a country-style waltz, It’s How You Hold Me taking things out in a note of true love. <<>>

Alice Howe’s new second full album Circumstance is an impressive recording by a talented and literate singer-songwriter who is accompanied by some first rate musicians, in this album produced by veteran bassist Freebo and recorded in an iconic Muscle Shoals, Alabama studio which yielded many classic soul, rock and blues albums going back to the 1960s. The vibe is apparent on the record, and it blends well with Ms. Howe’s folkie background. Most of the songs are about relationships in various states, from straight-out love songs to breakup songs to songs in the aftermath of a breakup, something that Ms. Howe apparently experienced first-hand. It all comes together nicely.

Our grade for audio quality is close to an “A” with a largely clean, warm, and punchy sound, that the Fame Studio has been known for.

There is an almost endless supply of singer-songwriter records, but the genre is so universal and timeless that there is always room for more, especially if they are as high in quality as Alice Howe’s new release Circumstance.

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