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Percy Howard — The Stars and the Well
(7d Media no#, 2023, DL)

by Jon Davis, Published 2024-02-20

The Stars and the Well Cover art

Singer Percy Howard first came to my attention with the Meridiem album back in the late 90s. I picked up the album because of the other musicians involved — Fred Frith, Bill Laswell, and Charles Hayward, all of whom I knew from previous work — but Howard was an unknown quantity at the time. Many years have passed since then, but I remember being intrigued by Howard’s singing, which was soulful but not confined to the soul genre. Since then, Howard has released three more Meridiem albums with varying personnel as well as a solo album which features many of the Meridiem-related musicians, but I missed all of that, only to be reminded of him when The Stars and the Well arrived. The distinctive artistic vision that I found on Meridiem is very much still in evidence. The songs vary from track to track, touching on funk (“Signifying Monkey”), African pop (“Back to My Roots”), 80s pop (“Get Around to It”), and atmospheric art-rock (“This Skin”). Some of the references that come to mind regarding the backing tracks are Steely Dan’s Aja, Robbie Robertson’s self-titled album from 1987, David Sylvian’s Gone to Earth, Scott Walker’s Tilt, and No-Man’s Flowermouth. In other words, sophisticated modern music with elements of jazz, folk, blues, and electronic music. This might sound odd, but there’s something about Percy Howard’s voice that reminds me of Nina Simone, probably in the phrasing and the way that the lyrics, which are sometimes decidedly unlike typical pop lyrics, are given priority over rhythm. Howard strikes me as a poet who adapts his work to song almost more than a songwriter, and that lends a sense of true art to the proceedings which is enhanced by his unpredictable melodies. The backing musicians featured on the album are Joe Gore, Vernon Reid, Fred Frith, and David Levita (guitars), Kaveh Rastegar and Sean Hurley (bass), Joe Gore (banjo), Matt Chamberlain (drums), Zac Rae (keyboards), James Havorka (trumpet), and Danny T. Levin (horns); backing vocals are from Valerie Pinkston, Mia Pfirmann, India Carney, and Roger Joseph Manning. The Stars and the Well is a tasty slab of art-rock that probably doesn’t sound like anything else you’ve heard, and it’s worth the effort of soaking in its subtleties.

Filed under: New releases, 2023 releases

Related artist(s): Fred Frith, Vernon Reid, Percy Howard

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