2 x Vinyl LP
Rowland S. Howard died too young (he was 50), too cool, and too beautiful for this square world, on December 30, 2009. Howard was an early member of Nick Cave’s first punk outfit, The Boys Next Door, which became the scabrously sexy noise-rock band, The Birthday Party. While Cave is the most famous musician to come from this scene, Howard was an equally talented songwriter. At 16, he wrote “Shivers” (for his then-band, The Young Charlatans; it ended up on the only Boys Next Door record, Door Door) a uniquely stirring pop song that he came to resent as his best-known work. Luckily, Howard had stirring pop songs to burn.
After The Birthday Party, Howard spent the next few decades collaborating with like-minded artists; playing in Crime and The City Solution, with Nikki Sudden’s band, and with his own band These Immortal Souls. He also made a number of extremely fine recordings with his kindred spirit, Lydia Lunch. In 1999, the Australian record label Shock, put out Howard’s first solo album, Teenage Snuff Film. Twenty years later, it gets its first proper North American release via Fat Possum, as a double LP remastered by original producer Lindsay Gravina.
Relatively under-appreciated by the mainstream, Howard’s influence, both as a player and songwriter, on the guitar-centric dark music margins is incalculable, and Teenage Snuff Film is considered his masterpiece. Spoon’s Britt Daniel loves it, and Against Me!’s Laura Jane Grace called it her “favorite record of all time” in a Reddit AMA. Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Nick Zinner says that Howard was “probably the most influential minimalist/maximist guitar player to me, the way he plays and rings out a chord or violently strikes one note is still mesmerizing.” Of Teenage Snuff Film in particular, he says, “I feel like [the album] had more effect on my life than my playing—that record is perfect, but also like a secret handshake, an admission to a smoky club where you can snugly bond with any other member.”
Assisted by Mick Harvey on drums and Beast of Bourbon’s Brian Hooper on bass, Howard’s lyrics and guitar playing on Teenage Snuff Film are unflinchingly honest. Performed with a plaintive yet understated croon, lines like “You’re bad for me like cigarettes / But I haven’t sucked enough of you yet” and “I’ve lost the power I had to distinguish / Between what to ignite and what to extinguish,” from opener “Dead Radio,” land with self-lacerating wit and crushing pathos. There’s a weight to the album, which proceeds as a uniformly mid-tempo dirge that might scan as affectation in lesser hands, particularly on covers of Billy Idol’s “White Wedding” and The Shangri-Las’ version of Jay and The Americans’ “She Cried.” Throughout, Howard’s singularly sharp riffs embroider each song’s fabric. On a few tracks, like the lovely “Exit Everything,” his guitar turns silvery in tone and becomes a bit more fluid, a mournful counterpoint to his vocal delivery.
Howard would put out one more solo album: 2009’s misanthropically beautiful Pop Crimes, released two and a half months before he died of liver disease. But even if he hadn’t, even if he hadn’t written “Shivers” and so many stunning Birthday Party songs, Howard’s gift would be set in stone by Teenage Snuff Film. Hopefully, this reissue will serve as minor justice for his too-often-overlooked life and art.