ALICE HOWE – Circumstance (KnowHowe KH0003)

CircumstanceBorn in Massachusetts, Howe already has two impressive releases to her name but Circumstance, with its cocktail of southern rock, country, folk, classic soul and blues, produced and mostly co-written by Freebo, who also plays fretless bass, could be the one to propel to the next level. Recorded in Muscle Shoals in Memphis in two separate sessions, the first in 2019, and featuring, among others Jeff Fielder and Will McFarlane on guitars, it actually opens with a punchier remodelling of the title track from her EP debut, the guitars chiming, twangy roots rock ‘You’ve Been Away So Long’, that now comes with an additional third verse, a resolution to make peace with the turmoil of the past (“When you’re in the moment it’s so hard to read the signs/You just need that perspective that you only gain in time/I’m just trying to build a life that lets me follow who I am”).

The first of the seven co-writes, Clayton Ivey on Hammond B3 fills, is ‘Somebody’s New Lover Now’, a swaggery country pop-sensibility number about moving on and accepting (“Somethin’ inside of me changed/Maybe you’ll thank me some day/But I got to believe it somehow/You’re somebody’s new lover now”) while, anchored by Mark Jordan’s piano, ‘Let Go’ charts a similar path about realising that while it may not be over, it’s over for now (“I got to be brave/And believe that our story’s not done/That the answers will come/Though for now there are none”). With an intro that recalls Cyndi Lauper’s ‘Time After Time’, there’s more of a sense of not letting go and rolling with what comes for the self-empowerment based ‘Love Has No Rules’ (“It’s a chance that we take/It’s a choice that we make/And I know I’ll find my way/Let it go and come what may/There’s nothing to prove”).

Coloured with trumpet, flugelhorn and tenor saxophone a la classic Memphis R&B, ‘Things I’m Not Saying’ is a wistful, acoustic strummed, moved on but longing-tinged reminiscence of a past relationship (“I heard you been travelin’ heard you’re doin’ all right/That you got some new girlfriend, moving on with your life/But I’m still full of questions do you wonder too/Do you still save a spot for the things that I’m not saying to you”).

At this point, you’ve probably realised this is a very much a post-break-up album, the past balanced against looking to move on and start anew, as in the catchy, twanging, uptempo walking beat ‘What About You’ (“I’ve been feelin’ kinda lonely lately/Eyes open for a soul in line with mine/I’ve been fooled by first impressions/But I’m hopin’ that I might be right this time/I’m picturin’ a rainy Sunday/Playin’ old records all afternoon/With somebody who loves me through and through/What about you?”) with its audience-friendly title refrain.

Riding a nervy fingerpicked line, ‘Something Calls To Me’ has a bluesier, more swampy groove to go with the darker lyrics (“The sound brings back a memory/Raindrops echo in a dream/It’s an invitation and a dare/Something calls to me out there… Where I’ve been no tongue can tell/But when the rain begins to fall/I know that I will heed that call”).

Marie Lewey and Cindy Walden providing the background vocal, sax and trumpet return for the swaggery soul uplift (“When you take my hand believe what I say/There is no mountain, there is no tide/That can change the way I feel with you by my side”) of ‘With You By My Side’, as Muscle Shoals meets ‘70s Philadelphia soul, positively making you want to raise your hands and testify.

The following two numbers are both solo compositions, the first being the Hammond-anchored ‘Line By Line’, a Southern country soul number that evokes vintage Tanta Tucker with a self-recrimination lyric (“I stuck a knife into the life I had/Nobody made me do it and I blame myself…I’m guilty I got nothin’ more to say/I’m not a bad girl I’m just used to gettin’ my way”), the second, one of the earlier numbers, being the Gretchen Peters-like Southern Gothic groove of ‘Travelin’ Soul’ that, Fielder on slide, veins a similar line about being a self-willed spirit (“They ask me how I do it/I said I like the way it feels/This is the life I chose/Seekin’ truth along this road”) with a commentary on the ugly soul of contemporary America (“the towns that pass my windows/They all start to look the same/Overrun by corporate greed/Disguised as household names…It’s a bitter pill to swallow/The country that you love/Has a history of violence/That is written out in blood”).

She ends with a slow waltz cover of Dayna Kurtz’s gospel honky tonk ‘It’s How You Hold Me’ (“strong and tender/Like it would hurt you to let me fall down”), a warm embrace send-off for an album that offers far more than circumstantial evidence of her burgeoning talent.

Mike Davies

Artist’s website:

‘Somebody’s New Lover Now’ – official video:

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