No, Howie Beck is not some weird collaboration between Howie Day and Beck, or Howie from the Backstreet Boys and Jeff Beck. Howie Beck is one of Toronto’s, up until now, hidden treasures, and he may come out of hiding now that Canadian music is reaching a virtual renaissance. Today, both mainstream and indie artists from Canada are finding success in America, but one look at past Juno winners tells a different story of back in the day. I mean, really, nominating a band called the Rainbow Butt Monkeys? And while Pearl Jam and Bush were dominating the US charts, the Canucks had Moist. Seriously, had you ever heard of them? I didn’t think so. With today’s Canadian artists it’s a different story. Whether the thanks belong to Alanis Morissette, Celine Dion, Shania Twain, the Barenaked Ladies, or even as far back as Neil Young and the Band, both Avril Lavigne and Broken Social Scene have found success in the states. Perhaps sensing this trend, Ever Records is re-releasing Howie Beck’s self-titled album from 2004. And Howie Beck’s music shows that, like Virginia Slims, Canada’s come a long way, baby.
Not having released an album in the United States in over five years, Howie Beck has been somewhat of a non-entity. In fact, there are only a few things most people (and by most, I mean very few) know about him is that he produced Jason Collett’s fabulous Idols of Exile and has had songs appear on Queer as Folk, Felicity and as reported erroneously, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. (Actually, his song appeared on the Buffy spin-off, Angel, but who’s keeping track?) What this means is that we have been deprived of the gentle harmonies and songcraft of a fine artist. Howie Beck creates delicate melodies that both entice and relax. His tales of romantic woe are universal enough for everyone to connect, and he lets everyone in on the action.
“Don’t Be Afraid” is one of the better examples on the record of some of Beck’s upbeat, yet slightly subdued songwriting. Ed Harcourt makes a guest appearance on the song, making for some truly wonderful harmonizing. “Sometime” features guest Matthew Caws of Nada Surf, while “I Need Light” finds collaboration with Feist. “The Books Beside Her Bed” strips everything down to just Howie’s breathy voice and his subtle acoustic guitar, one of the many intimate songs on the album. “How Do You Feel” recalls both the Beatlesque qualities of Elliott Smith’s later songs, and the cinematic sounds of Jon Brion and Michael Penn’s work. Beck’s songs are not just buoyed by his delicate voice and guitars; he is also blessed with a gift of memorable songwriting. “We Waited” and “Zombie Girl” are perfect examples of songs with choruses that tend to run on repeat in the brain.
Howie Beck doesn’t have the most dynamic name in rock and roll, it’s true. People are sure to get him confused with Howie Day, or Beck, or just simply forget his name altogether. What they won’t do, after finally getting a chance to hear his songwriting, is forget how good his music really is. It took years of Canadian infiltration (and you can have some of them back including Celine and Bryan Adams), but Canadian artists like Howie Beck are finally going to get their dues. If nothing else, this album inspired Jason Collett to hire him on as a producer, and that’s worth a whole lot.