ALBUM REVIEW: Ben Howard maintains indie charm on ‘Noonday Dream’

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It’s only fitting that Ben Howard begins his latest album Noonday Dream with a six-and-a-half minute opus.

He may be with major labels Island in the UK and Republic in the States, but Howard hasn’t deviated from making the kind of slow-building jams that landed him on many people’s radars over a decade ago.

On his latest Noonday Dream, out June 1, seven of the ten tracks clock in at at least 4:54 — the shortest track being a 47-second interlude. Howard has always excelled at letting his music breathe, finding places where his heartbreaking vocals and songwriting can float effortlessly above simple but elegant guitar parts. The album opens with “Nica Libres at Dusk”, which sets the tone for the whole record with its almost cinematic approach.

The album comes four years since his last I Forget Where We Were, a record that made a big splash and took Howard from playing small rooms in the United States like the El Rey Theatre to playing the Greek Theatre by the end of the touring cycle. Noonday Dream comes across as a record that was made to flourish in big amphitheaters like the one he’ll play in LA — the Shrine Auditorium on September 27 — later this year. There’s so much depth sonically, so many layers, that it’ll fill large rooms.

When I first heard Howard, he seemed like the man capable of taking the baton from fellow European Damien Rice when it comes to writing soul-crushing songs about heartbreak that can still find a large audience. The second song “Towing the Line” sounds very much in that wheelhouse, Howard’s words the focal point over a simple guitar rhythm that has depth added via other instrumentation (mainly a keyboard line).

Howard is quite the wordsmith, and his almost deadpan vocal delivery is often at odds with the sentimentality at the heart of those words. It’s almost as if the words are being delivered from a jaded perspective. This is most apparent on single “A Boat to An Island On The Wall” — although Howard’s intent gets more aggressive just as the track adds a layer of electric guitar about halfway through the seven minute jam.

There’s so much reverb and ambience that it completely renders an early career comparison to Jack Johnson as comical. Howard’s execution puts him really in his own genre, with more similarities to a James Blake than any guitar-toting singer-songwriter type. His approach allows every note to shine, and each listen is more enjoyable than the last as you are able to recognize new layers with each repeat.

The album picks up on “The Defeat” in the album’s back half. It’s the biggest head-bopper on the record, a nice drum tempo setting the backbone for the track. On many of the album’s tracks, Howard’s vocals are hazy. This works best on “There’s Your Man”, the ninth track on the record. The simple bass groove is easy to slink into.

The album closes with “Murmurations” and it leaves me excited to see how Ben Howard brings these songs to life on the stage. His touring band is extremely talented and it’ll be fun to see them recreate the vivid sounds that Howard produces on the record.

Noonday Dream is an album that is begging to be listened to in big over-ear headphones while lying in a hammock under a blanket (I’ve actually listened to the album in this fashion and can confirm it is divine). It’s a beautiful record that you should set some time aside to listen to this weekend when it drops!