By Chad Nance
“No autotune was utilized on this record. Any pitch imperfections are happily displayed for all to hear.” – liner notes for “Who The Hell is Clay Howard?”
Remember that summer, y’all? 1983 or 84 playing backgammon at the local swimming pool while a boom box vibrated out tunes by a true variety of artists rather than the prepackaged and Pro-Tools oppressed pop music my kids listen to these days?
Yeah… I know. I’m an old fart who misses seeing quarters lined-up along the monitor of a Galaga machine and the singular smell that a new cassette tape had, that combination of plastic and ink. I remember back in the day when Billboard’s had room for the Kinks, David Bowie, Culture Club, Marvin Gaye, Earth Wind and Fire, Journey, and even ‘ol Uncle Frank Stallone. The music wasn’t just hollow atmospherics masked as deep thought, and the variety was stunning.
Winston-Salem’s Clay Howard has a new album called “Who The Hell is Clay Howard” that took me back to those kind of summer days- Banana Boat sun tan oil, white bikinis on brown skin and splitting a single beer out behind my best friend’s shed. This is not a nostalgia record, though. This is searing, exploratory rock/pop created by a grownup who has spent years figuring out just who he is and what he sounds like.
Clay Howard and his collaborator Brynn Arens give audiences a work of art of rich quality with “Who The Hell is Clay Howard?”. The album comes out of the gate hard with the driving rocker “LOL”. With this number Clay suggests that the best way to deal with life’s indignities and general bullshit is to just keep looking forward and make peace with the ridiculousness of life. Don’t sweat the small stuff… it just is what it is.
“Yes I’m strong and I’m on the mend
and I’m laughing out loud”
“LOL” is built around a guitar riff with a ragged, hard rockin’ sound that is precision produced in a way to allow the silences to carry the attitude until the full band comes in and drives the song forward with real joy. The final, and possibly best, touch on “LOL” is Clay’s family singing backup with Dad heading to the end of the song bringing a real sense jubilance and warmth. Listening to the faint sound of a child’s laughter mixed into “LOL”’s closing moments it is clear to the listener exactly who puts the smile on Clay Howard’s face.
“Never Give it Away” is a garage rocker that again stakes out a defiant lyrical territory on top of a cinematic arrangement the would feel right at home on AOR radio. The drums hold the arrangement together and propel the song though its changes.
“It’s time to live not time to hide
Who said that you could not get by
The fears that keep you locked inside
That fragile box in which you hide”
The song begins with a swaggering swing that speaks from experience, but doesn’t feel like easy shot cynicism or staged managed weariness. “Never Give it Away” reminds me of hitting your 40’s and at once realizing what a moron you’ve been for all these years and figuring out that you still have a long time to be on this planet and a lot to do before you say goodbye.
“Invisible” has a similar saunter and vivid approach to production. It pairs well with “Never Give it Away” lyrically and really brings back that summer of ‘84 feel. Clay’s singing reminds me of The Power Station and is layered in production in a way that is compelling, unpretentious, and binds the song together. A song, by the way, that has to sound incredible live.
One of the album’s standouts for me is “Send Me an Angel”(Written by Clay and Brynn). This country-rock inflected tune is a gorgeously crafted pop rocker that has stayed on steady rotation in my headphones since I first got a copy of the track. It doesn’t take the album on an unrecognizable swerve, but the production is looser with more of a “live” sound to the proceedings. Clay’s singing here soars, reaching the peaks and staying strong all of the way up. The playful interaction between Clay (the front man) and his backing singers keeps the yearning from becoming maudlin. The blistering guitar solo is just the cherry on top.
“All In Front of You” brings the fuzz and the atmospherics along with the wisdom and more than a little regret. The arrangement has a richness and narrative feel that moves from mood to mood with a deft surety that remains compelling throughout. “This Time” is a pugnacious rocker that declares from the jump and never lets up.
“Biscuits Ain’t Rising” is a story song that drips with Southern atmosphere minus any self-conscious, cornpone flourishes that would have only served to undercut the track’s apocalyptic sound and anguished imagery.
“She’s Coming Home” brings the album to a close with a theatrical beauty that uses the interplay of the vocals and an almost visual and layered arrangement to convey longing and regret, but never wallows in anything resembling self pity.
Time is a thief in matters of the heart
I would give anything
to keep from being apart”
Time is the enemy here for Howard, but it isn’t in the typical, easy elegiac way that mourns lost youth. This isn’t pining for “the old days” – it is like a pump up record for the next decade. Time on “Who The Hell is Clay Howard?” is not a misty, sepia colored past- it is a relentless ticking clock that only keeps getting faster the more time we spend on the planet.
“Who The Hell is Clay Howard” is a mature record of depth and sophistication… and it rocks. When the kids, the neighbors, the job, and the world just get to be too much this is the perfect record to sit outside with. Just kick back, feel the warmth of the sun, and remember what it is like to really breathe.
You can purchase your own copy of “Who the Hell is Clay Howard” HERE.
You can hear Clay Howard live on Friday May 8th at the Garage with Clay Howard & the Silver Alerts and the Luxuriant Sedans. More information HERE.