Based out of Stirling, Pale White Branches, Andrew Howie’s first album since 2010 (adding to the lengthy tally of releases under both his own name and as Calamateur), is also a rare collaborative work involving both a five-piece band and co-writes. One of three songs that grew out of his work as a community music teacher, opening track ‘A Follower, A Fighter’ is a heavy, rolling dose of folk rock that speaks of the All Blacks, New Zealand’s national rugby team (“They ruled the oval, Māori brothers up in arms”) but actually has a schoolyard death setting (“In class we learnt their war dance to scare our enemies”) in some tough neighbourhood of “Pens and blades, swings and bars” where, referencing the gritty New Zealand film about an urban Māori family battling poverty, alcoholism and domestic violence, , he sings “Once were warriors got sons at the gate/The looked after children lived next to our place/No one to wait for, detours they roamed/A house divided doesn’t make a home”.
Charging out of the gate with its salvo of drums and chugging guitars, a tribute to Glasgow, ‘Open Arms’ was originally part of an EP in aid of the local charity Refuweegee, which would seem to be about ridding ourselves of the cliches that keep us apart, before he takes the pace down with the world-wearily sung in his soft burr ‘What If My Best Isn’t Good Enough?’, a resigned snapshot of someone trying to escape their prison sentence past and “be some semblance of an ordinary man”, but finding the world against them (“I’ve filled in these forms a hundred times/And waited in countless Monday morning lines/But I don’t know how long I can last”), wondering if it’s “better to fail than not to try at all” or “Better sit still than rise up and fall”.
The tumbling notes of ‘California’ and its sunny vibe drive another song about dreaming of a better life with the woman who inspires you at your side, complete with a line about playing Scrabble, but then, switching musical moods, hollow drums and resonating guitars pave the way for the breathily sung six-minute ‘Inverlussa Bay’, although the lyrics (written to celebrate friends’ 50th anniversary) maintain and upbeat perspective of looking back on a life fully lived even if it’s not always been a smooth ride (“Now over eighteen thousand days have come and gone/But no can accuse us of wasting a precious one/We’ve had more than we expected/Sometimes less than we could stand/But intertwined together we were stronger than a solitary strand”).
Named after Glasgow’s rail and bus interchange, ‘Partick Station’ is another catchy upbeat poppily folk number about leaving home to embrace a new life and freedom but finding yourself alone and hoping “someone in this city/Will be a friend of mine” because “To make a home/It just takes time”. Those familiar with the city will recognise Velvet Elvis a reference to the bar and grill on Dumbarton Road.
Elsewhere, ‘Sycamore’ is a piano ballad sung in the voice of a woman whose husband has become lost to, I’d assume, depression, ‘Madeleine’ another chugging rock pop track that charts the titular character’s journey from a baby in the back of her father’s car to a nine-year-old’s first communion, finding love with another woman and finally attempting suicide in mid-life despair, while, again with the bouncy melody contrasting with the downbeat lyric, ‘Drip Feed’ is about being how life can turn you cold (“And now my heart’s just a little bit hard/And I’ve been trying to figure out how not to put up my guard”).
It returns to his home town for the piano-based ‘Broompark Drive’ and its memories of discovering a bright new world out there through a brief childhood friendship (“It was a baptism into the American dream/For this middle-class kid raised on state-side TV/With your jam you called jelly, your room called a den/It seems pedestrian now but it was glorious then”), tinged with regret about not keeping in touch with the self-justifying “some friendships burn bright and then flicker down low/And there are places and times we just need to let go”.
Pale White Branches ends on a bittersweet note in an NHS palliative care ward with the guitar chimes of ‘Echoes’ (“You caught me off guard with that look in your eyes/Like you’re bracing yourself for a farewell/But the last time I checked I still had breath in my chest”), refusing to simply submit “I’m not ready to let go yet/So I grab that magic marker pen/So you can read this back again”, ending (and a borrowing phrase from Kathleen Jamie’s poem Here lies our land) with the big question “Are we transients who sing then slowly fade?/Are we echoes of a sound yet to be made?/And in the end are we the sum of what we gave?” These pale white branches hold green shoots of memories that comfort and of hopes of rebirth.
Artist’s website: www.andrew-howie.com
‘Sycamore’ – official video:
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