by DAKIN ANDONE
I hadn’t heard of Jason Howell until the single of his sophomore album was debuted on Latest Disgrace back in May. During my time spent interacting with the Atlanta music scene, his name nor his music had ever reached my ears, but when I saw that his record was recorded and produced at the Cottage, I knew that he must have something to offer. Luciano Giarrano and Damon Moon have helped create some exceptional music, including Small Reactions’s Hung From Wire EP and Suno Deko’s Thrown Color EP also out this month.
Admittedly, singer-songwriters don’t get much attention in Atlanta, and unfortunately I think that the genre is often viewed as “safe” or boring. On the other hand, Vital Organs is—in many ways—not safe at all, especially in the musical landscape that Atlanta is. As Moe Castro over at Latest Disgrace said in his debut of Howell’s “Skeletons”:
…I believe it’s more a case of us overlooking or missing out on performers than purposeful neglect, but the results are still the same: There is a lot of terrific music out there that isn’t getting heard. It’s time to change that.
It is time to change that. Jason Howell is a testament to the talented and creative artists that don’t receive the recognition that they should in our town.
In May 2013 Howell released Everywhere Out of Place, a record that seemed to go relatively unnoticed in the local scene. Check it out. Vital Organs keeps with the same foundations Howell established on Everywhere while still showing a subtle growth and maturation that most artists would have trouble realizing in just a year.
The record has all the good staples of modern dark americana. There are songs that are quiet, such as “Mr. Finite,” that rely on the fundamentals of Howell and his guitar. Still, others feature whole rock ensembles, executed in the vein of Neil Young, allowing the songwriter to let his voice loose and cut through.
Personally, I believe Jason Howell’s true talent lies in his ability to pen solemn, poignant lyrics. The fourth track, “He That Hath Ears to Hear,” is an outstanding example of this, not exclusively due to the fact that Howell confronts different elements of religion—a brave move for a lesser-known artist in a local scene attempting to cultivate an audience. This dark, brooding track is his encouragement to a person close to him who is deeply hurting, while also serving as a personal contemplation. The chorus alone reveals a feeling of frustration (“God is good whether you believe it or not / After everything he’s done / how can you just stay / where you are?”) that is only magnified by the verses with lines such as, “These wars that you wage / they’re not unique to you,” and the second, which says, “Are you an object of his wrath? / Am I an object of his mercy?”
It’s obvious that, while Howell has some roots in spirituality, he has some questions and criticism for certain faculties of the church. Again, I think this is incredibly courageous. While he may run the risk of alienating listeners who don’t have the same view, it seems to have been the right choice to make because it gives him the opportunity to demonstrate his skill of crafting plaintive yet honest lyrics.
Another illustration of this can be seen in the sixth track, “The Name Doesn’t Make You a Son,” in which Mr. Howell readily calls the church out for hypocrisy, using imagery of a bride (the church) that isn’t honoring her marriage. It’s a picture that has been used many times before, but Howell paints it so well.
She said "I'm ok with Jesus
but His bride can be a bitch.
I'd have half a mind to divorce her
I don't know how He puts up with it
I hear she's been sleeping around
bowing down to silver and gold
I hear she's been working the crowd
I hear she's been casting stones."
It’s evocative. It’s powerful but subtle, a facet of lyricists that isn’t seen as often in Atlanta as one would like. The speaker wants to give you an idea of how she feels, and she wants you to believe it.
I’d say that the main weakness of this album is the lack of variety. With the exception of the title-track, which takes on a completely different musical feel with a more lighthearted arrangement and accompaniment (a welcome trade-off from the melancholic tone), the record sounds the same throughout, generally using the same elements from start to finish. It may just be me, but it would’ve been exciting to see some branching out in terms of musical ideas.
Despite this, Vital Organs is one of the strongest sophomore albums I’ve seen, especially in terms of lyrical content. I’m looking forward to seeing more from Jason Howell in the future.
The production is, of course, tremendous and Moon did an extraordinary job on this project. Much love for the Cottage and the work those guys are doing to help improve Atlanta’s musical legacy.