In paying tribute to one of his favorite songs of the era, film director John Hughes ruined the Psychedelic Furs for kids like me. It didn't matter that the Furs had released "Pretty in Pink" a full five years before the movie came out; or that Richard Butler's voice sounded like the bruised end of a hard night of drinking; or that "Pretty in Pink" itself was the sly insinuation of an acerbic wit. We late-blooming punk rockers were too tough to consider anything remotely associated with Molly Ringwald. By the time I warmed to the confident pessimism of early Furs material, the band was overbaked and undone, integrity having long since given way to gloss. When the Butler brothers formed Love Spit Love in 1992, I had high hopes for the maturation of that laconic scorn and barroom rasp, but Richard sounded dispirited and unsure confining his full-grown ruminations in the guise of a younger man's pop songs. Having witnessed the misuses of that all-too-rare combination of precise hooks, clever lyricism, and a coarse vocal grain, I decided to keep my ears open and hope for a successor. Never did I imagine he would materialize at the Hotel Utah's open mike. Singer/songwriter Neil Howard
described as a combination of Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, and David Bowie, but if Richard Butler had ever performed acoustic torch songs such complicated comparisons would not be necessary. Like Butler, Howard possesses a voice that is, at once, rough around the edges and perfectly melodic, and while Howard eschews politics and social commentary in favor of matters of the heart, in his world, love is equally sad, mad, and corrupt. And, unlike most open-mike denizens', Howard's songs are not a vague sonic conveyance for his voice or his words. They are fully realized -- dare I say -- pop songs, slowed down and drawn out with melancholic sophistication, tense arrangements, and wistful restraint. It's little surprise, then, that a band has grown quickly around Howard to record this material. The New Black
consists only of three members -- Howard in the company of the consistently classy drummer Joey Sunset and the ever-modest Roy Elder on upright bass -- which is just right, since there is little room for embellishment of the songs represented on Howard's live solo recording, Sides
, except to distance him from those who assume an acoustic guitar must a folk singer make.
"Daylight," the clear single on both Sides
and the New Black's eponymous four-song EP, is a powerful introduction to Howard's aesthetic. A brooding love song delivered by a bartender to a sinking alcoholic beauty, it is driven by a punchy guitar riff and Howard's raspy hero's chorus, "If I could just hold you one night/ If I could just show you daylight/ I could be the one who makes you whole/ Not just the one who takes you home." My second choice of single, "Turns Like Leaves," is a ballad whose musical aggression belies its lyrical comparison of a girl to flowers whose "fingers reach for doors like sunlight for gardens." Clever even in its vulnerability and catchy as all hell, it surely would have made Richard Butler weep back in the day. "All the One," which appears only on Sides
, is powered by Howard's fierce, galloping guitar, while his observations -- "The harder that she falls/ The softer you become" -- are delivered in a soothing late-night whisper. All of the songs seem to follow cracks in the heart and mind, and, despite Howard's dismissal of organized religion (as made evident in the brilliant "We Can't Belong" from Sides
), the trappings and tyranny of faith are rife throughout the dysfunction. Howard counts angels on the head of a pin, recounts sin and righteousness, and looks for redemption in the eyes of love, in spite of all evidence to the contrary. Let's hope he stays smart and never gets wise. The New Black performs on Wednesday, July 7, at Cafe Du Nord with Terese Taylor and J.J. Schultz opening at 9 p.m. Tickets are $7; call 861-5016 or visit www.cafedunord.com