Sleepless Girls - Harry Howard and the NDE (Spooky Records)
This one gets seven bottles. Seven. Harry Howard and Ed Preston have excelled themselves in the most extraordinary way.
Right, I’ll calm down and try and explain. First, both HHNDE records have been natural progressions, with damn fine songs, and plenty to bounce around the room to. Memorable in every sense.
In 2016, it seems that times have changed. Time was when the “third album” was perceived as “difficult’; that a band found it difficult to develop onwards from their initial impetus and squirt to stardom. The Ramones’ third LP was written at the same time as their first, so no problem there. I suspect much the same could be said of the Stranglers, whose live sets in 1977 featured 90 minutes of ugly hits. However, these are exceptions.
Two bands who, quite clearly, are developing at a rate of knots regardless of what a ‘rock journo’ might think of as a potential problem are Sun God Replica, and Harry Howard and the NDE, both of whom treat that “difficult third album” thing with no more notice than a hawk does a speed bump.
Harry Howard is, currently, running three musical outfits: the NDE, Duet, and Atom. He and his partner, Edwina Preston, work for a living. They’re not sitting on their bottoms on the dole smoking weed and waiting for inspiration. They have kids, and anyone who has those knows that in itself is a full life, full of despair and impossibly sticky surfaces (possibly apricot jam). Ed just posted on Facebook that she’s just completed her thesis. As well as being in the aforementioned three bands, working and wrangling the kids.
I want to keep this brief, because by now you should be reaching for the credit card of your choice and pestering the good folk of Spooky Records. First, tho’, there are several themes running through Harry’s songs (as those of you who have his first two albums know), and while one of these is shoes, the main one is women. And by women,
I don’t mean soppy love songs, or “she dun me rong” songs, or even ‘gosh, missus you look pretty today’ sorts of songs. But you know, songs about relationships. And women. And how they might fit in. Or don’t. And how Harry likes that. Or doesn’t. Or does and doesn’t at the same time. And stuff like that. And the manner of Harry’s telling is, shall we say, eloquent, clever and droll.
Eloquent because he says what he means, and says it simply. He also says it with a knowing glance - rather hard to pull off in a song, never mind on the page. Harry’s songwriting does both. His very slightly raised eyebrow as he utters brilliance like ‘life was boring as hell when I wasn’t with you’, which is again - simple and accurate, smart (because it’s an acknowledgement) and amusing because … well, it’s like implied knockabout, really.
Droll, of course, gets a bad name. But droll works better because usually, belly laffs don’t last beyond the first few hearings. After that … meh, as the young folk say (I am told). What this means is that, lyrically, every song on ‘Sleepless Girls’ resonates as you sing along (you’ll be doing that on the first listen). That’s every song.
There’s such a distinctive ‘60s joyous exuberance to this outfit: part of this is down to Ed Preston, who wields a keyboard programmed, it seems, to 1965, snappy outfits (possibly with fringes), sharp boots and fingerpoppin’ daddyos and Jean Genet paperbacks.
Oh, damn. Did I say daddyos?
I didn’t mean … Blast, I’ve been outed as an old person.
Side One comes kicking and pounding out of the speakers with an urgent, brawling “The Only One”, long a staple in the NDE’s live shows. “I’ve seen the devil’s daughter/ She doesn’t do what you think she oughta” really sets not just the scene, but the underlying topicality of the LP: expectations placed upon us all. I mean we might end up with, “She’s got a knife, she’s got a plan/ to have your heart in the palm of your hand”, but really, what we’re looking at from here on in is choice and perspective.
I just want to reiterate something here: you’re gonna be dancing through most of this record, so be warned. There are a few slower songs, but you’re focused on them, there’s no filler here, and “Sleepless Girls” is not the lp to do the dishes to. It’s all the kind of stuff that, were you to hear it on the radio, you stop dead, drop the plate of food you were holding (the dog gets lucky) and turn the radio up. This album is a hell of an achievement.
So, yes, “The Only One” might as well be the alternative title for the LP; there’s a lot going on here. Harry’s trademark vocal occasionally walking away from the music, Ed’s perfectly high-pitched organ thingy working so effectively against Harry’s voice.
The second song starts in grand, groovy style, then Ed’s organ jars in, and Harry’s deadpan delivery has us following the threads to a much bigger set of ideas… “Votes for Women” is going to stay with me for a long time, building to and growing to its perhaps inevitable conclusion. “goods and chattels, you’re goods and chattels’”leads us to “without the franchise there’s no hope”…
“Primitive Girl” is, perhaps, one of a continuing series of Harryesque kitchen-sink dramas, except here we’re kinda on the savannahs of Africa with the kind of male braggadocio which only Harry can twist - “with your animal limbs and your scratched-up skin/ Your body’s not quite right…If God had a plan you were never part of it”. That’s the way to seduce any woman, I'm sure. It’s a wonder he’s not been disembowelled.
So far we’re hearing well-written, solid songs which, on delivery, turn us into rabbits in headlights. When you see the NDE, Clare Moore (drums) and Dave Graney (bass) form one of those symbiotic rhythm sections which propel Harry and Ed forward - standing on stage with Clare and Dave must be a bit like standing next to revving 18-wheeler. That’s the kicker, really, the two couples have such a tight lock together that the songs, already strong, are made so much tougher they may as well wear leather and wield knives and bike chains.
The fourth song is a measured, slow-burning fuse telling us about how an abused woman becomes in turn, well… the “Cruel Kitten”. It’s the first time I’ve really heard the NDE explore big depths and potential use of quiet, and also the first time I’ve really heard Harry’s slower, deeper timbre. Ed’s organ/ synth thing is used to great effect here, particularly the moving chirruping in the background, which acts as sand beneath the skin.
“The Lake”, another live set favourite, follows seamlessly, a seriously groovy rhythm offset by Harry’s slower vocal; “I sank like a stone, I sank with a weight … as I lay dissolving into nothing but space”. One has to assume that this is a deeply personal, barely-hidden lyric; “though I had no purpose, I still had a stake” is one of my favourite lines on “Sleepless Girls”, but Harry’s a dab hand with great lines linked to greater a purpose…
Speaking of which, the title track ends Side Two, with Harry again admiring women … but instead of Iggy (and all the other would-be Iggys etc etc) and Iggy’s fascination with double-Ds , Harry’s interest is much more … involved. “I love the secret girls, a bullet and a gun’ is droll-sharp-knowing” confessional in such a damn funny, complex way I choked when I first heard it, playing “The Lake” over a couple more times just to hear Harry’s delivery. Are you with me yet? Are you?
“The clever girls are funnier - they’re bound to make you cry”, Harry observes, with … shall I give away the happy ending? Harry’s one of the few songwriters today who writes with such droll incision, with a bleak coating, that instead of going, ‘golly, I feel flat today’ after hearing it, you go “Yes! exactly!” and laugh as you tread on the cat, before hoofing the wretched thing out the window. And then you laugh about that, too.
Oh, and this is the first song where Harry’s love of the Velvet Underground is really apparent; in fact, this song, “Sleepless Girls”, would not sound out of place in the VU’s live set towards the end of 1969. I don’t say this lightly: I can think of only one other band, of all those chumps who namecheck the VU, who seem to have actually inhabited the VU, absorbed them and been able to integrate aspects of the band into their own (LP covers, and cover versions, don’t count, of course). There’s another song here which I think does something similar. I’ll leave it to you to discover.
It should take a while to absorb Side One, but you don’t care about that as you reach for the disc and turn it straight over to Side Two. You can’t have enough of this. Straight into it.
“Grim Disposition” swings, growling, into our heads and we’re into it, snapped in tight. This is probably the most direct social commentary we’ve heard from Harry; the pendulum or scythe-like motion of the song is a bit of a masterstroke, emphasising the power of lyrics such as “how do we go about buying the stars?/ as they licked their red lips and smoked their cigars”.
This is top notch stuff, I’m telling you - I won’t give away the ending, but it’s self-consciously grim - again, with that dead-pan air of self-knowledge. Harry’s not being clever, by the way, what’s happening here is that the band is developing in depth and power, there’s a real chance this band could get out of this country into the big time - on the strength of their songs. There’s about five here which would not be out of place opening or closing scenes in films.
“She Doesn’t Like It” is, a fucking brilliant pop song, sung predominantly by Ed. Another of those wonderful trips into understated pop savagery. I’ll leave it there. Fabulous. Blood on the floor, soaking into the sawdust.
“Thunderclap” I remember being played here in Adelaide as a new song called “Gaucho”. “Thunderclap” is better title of course, and again we’re in teen rebellion terrain, the sort of world where Harry and Ed and Clare and Dave are in their own Rebel With A Cause territory. All that’s missing from the jarring, perky organ and shoving rhythm is a revving horde of bikers, and Hunter S. Thompson and Ralph Steadman with their eyes twirling and the bats descending.
“Criminal Life” is the second-last song and once again Mr Robert Forster’s r’n’r rule about the second-last being the weakest is tossed in the bin. If “Criminal Life” is a weak song, it’s one which most musicians would kill to write.
“This life of crime, I had nothing better to do”… look, some of these lyrics seem on the one hand quite personal, even literal, yet there’s a much bigger, deeper resonance going on. And really, this is the stark mark of a real songwriter for the ages. Sorry, Harry, but you’re gonna have to accept that what you’re doing is head-swelling stuff.
Harry decides to end “Sleepless Girls” with “25 Cent Paperback”, which starts slow, and builds and grows, snarling and rolling and fighting. For the second time we’re treated to Harry’s slower, more resonant tones, and, I suspect, people will be making ill-advised comparisons with Harry’s brother, Rowland, but while the brothers shared a lot, Harry’s first two NDE albums have demonstrated beyond all expectation that Harry comes from a very different place. Any vocal similarity… is just that, a similarity. I will say that, while Harry, Ed, Clare and Dave should be rightly proud of this record, Harry’s sister will be, too, and his brother would have been damned impressed.
“They take your life and offer you leisure time/ They are nothing more than thieving swine/ so we’ll take all the money and we’ll get away”. I won’t give away the ending (stroke of genius, Ed), but “25 Cent Paperback”, I would venture to suggest, would make a wonderful short film - not a film clip, but an actual film. There's a striking element of Jim Thompson, Jean Genet and a bit of Bowie to this LP, but really... it's not something you dwell on. “Sleepless Girls” is a seamless, rather bloody wonderful record.
Harry Howard’s lyrics don’t so much have little narratives, but the narratives are hiding there, stories upon stories, overlapping and wrestling with each other. It’s Harry’s job to find themes, thoughts, and reflections. We’re completely beguiled. And we'll still be having nightmares about Josh Lord's creepy eyes cover, too.
And Loki Lockwood of Spooky Records has done a fine job blending all this into just the right shape. There’s a lot of delicacy required with Harry Howard… but if Loki’s a fucking alchemist, Harry’s some sort of shamen. ‘Sleepless Girls’ is one you’ll be spinning in the old folks’ home, in between being battered by our carers and bleeding internally.
And for those of you in Melbourne, Josh Lord's new exhibition, "Newspeak and Thoughtcrimes" is on at the Ministry of Art from October 15. The opening, at 6.30 that night, features performances by Ash Wednesday (ex- Neubauten), Ollie Olsen (you should know who he is) with support from monsters of noise, Kollaps.