Born in Ireland and the founder member of We Banjo 3, Howley is a prodigious exponent of Irish folk and has performed alongside such diverse names as The Chieftains, Mumford & Sons, Altan and Billy Strings. Surprisingly though, For Venus is his first solo album, he taking charge of acoustic and electric guitars, clawhammer banjo, bouzouki and bodhrán variously accompanied on fiddle by Ultan O’Brien and Bogdan Djukic, with an array of other contributors providing piano, upright bass, cello and drums.
The title a reference to the highest mountain in southern New Hampshire, ‘Monadnock’ has an eerie Appalachian feel to the banjo work that perfectly fits with Howley’s low moan vocal and lyrics like “Some tried to tame her drove in her wolves and burned her crown/bare boned in the ashes/heartbroken tears on the frozen ground/but she still sits open handed/she’s the one we call home/so bow to the mountain/she is the one that stands alone”.
That same feel also haunts the more percussive throb of ‘Lie Open’ as he sings “Hello midnight/hello sorrow/won’t you come in/where I can see you/We’re both nervous/Long lost lovers”, a handclap rhythm offering the foundation as the music swirls like the smoke of an early hours jazz bar serving the souls of the lost. His muted vocals sound worn down by defeat as mournful fiddle prowls around ‘Surrender’ (“Fill my cup to the edge/Cold hard steel across my chest/Cast your name to the wind/Hope she’ll smile on me again”) that suggests a poetic affinity with Yeats before the brooding, enervated ‘Dig Your Heels’ captures both a rush of desire (“You couldn’t hold it back if you wanted to/The water’s right up to the edge/The fire is burning in your belly now/And it won’t back down/These are the moments in which whispers grow/Into waves that crash ashore/Pushing in the tide that keeps you up”) and a sense of anxiety and threat in the lines “There is comfort in being hidden/Tragedy in not being found” that made me think of Vernon Scannel’s poem about loss of childhood ‘Hide And Seek.
Siobhán Moore and Aisling Urwin aka Woven Kin add backing vocals to the sparse, picked pulsing acoustic blues ‘Beneath’ where, in a raw loam voice, he again draws on nature imagery for an introspective dig into vulnerability and release (“Burn with me/Cut me down/Set me free/Break my branches/Cast me to the breeze/I don’t need the light/Tighten up your grip/Deliver me in sin/Dig your nails and sing”).
Anchored by uptight bass and swirled with ghostly strings, the minimalist atmospheric title track is, as you might imagine, to do with the madness of love and the heat with which it can burn ((“I fell in love with Venus/And her oh so wicked ways/Whispered caution to the wind/Rocked and rolled for days/Set out upon the darkness/She dragged me away/Sunlight trickling down her skin…I woke in up the roses/Thorns sticking to my sides”)
There’s a calmer feel to ‘Smoke Is Rising’ that is at odds with the cynicism of the lyrics as, in what could be directed at the media, he sketches how “Smoke is rising shadow on the move/From a back room cigarette tray/To the front page of the news/The word of a prophet paid in cash/Speaking glory while they bind your hands/Steady is the sin of telling tales/Pulling cards to win a trick/The dealers getting paid” but nevertheless declares “I will hold on hope” as the last flicker of light fades.
He’s joined on vocals by Rachel Sermanni for the final track, ‘Feel It’, a tender, Irish misted bruised love song that captures that sense that things are falling apart but neither side wants to articulate it (“There’s a feeling/Lies between us like a ghost/If I could fit a feeling into words/But anything I say just makes it worse”).
Heady and brooding, clammily feverish at times, For Venus is an album to listen to in the shadows when you can hear the slow beat of your heart and need to know you’re not alone.
Artist’s website: www.davidhowleymusic.com
‘Beneath’ – official video:
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