To mark the release of Human Contact, the debut album by York band The Howl & The Hum, David Nicholson takes a listen and remembers where, for him, it all began
Wednesday night for me is the quiz with Tom Adams in the chair at The Swan in Bishy Road, followed by a swift bike ride to catch the last hour of the open mic night at The Habit in Goodramgate.
And this particular Wednesday five years ago – or maybe it was six, I forget, that’s what a lifetime of late-night gig-going does for the memory – was no different.
A young student from the University of York had dropped by and was given his chance to play by the host, David Ward Maclean. “Hi, I’m Sam Griffiths,” he said, before being almost drowned out by the noise from the bar.
Then he played Videotapes, a song he used to play in his band in his home town of Colchester.
Now, at this point in a film script it usually says, “then the crowd fell silent, they knew they were experiencing something special”. But the Habit’s raucous drinkers didn’t.
The noise from the bar continued, though those regulars nearest to the window seat that passes for the Habit’s stage area started to show an interest in the music from the fresh-faced English Literature student whose clear voice cut through the clamour. Polite applause followed.
Then, a dramatic pause, and a glowering glare from Mr Ward Maclean, and a break that was just long enough to command an uneasy calm. Sam introduced his second song, a cover version of Blondie’s Heart Of Glass, which he reinterpreted in the style of the blues and gospel singer, Reverend Gary Davis.
Who was this kid who had the effrontery to turn that tune, a beautiful, post-punk, pop classic, into an undulating yet wistful ragtime lament? This was the moment when the crowd really did fall silent, we knew we were experiencing something special… and I still get goosebumps just remembering it.
I was with my friend, Sam Rowntree, a shrewd judge of good music; we turned to each other, not quite believing what we were witnessing.
Going to new heights
In the weeks that followed, Sam Griffiths became something of a regular at the Habit and the city’s other open mic nights, notably Boss Caine’s rumbustious Sunday night ‘Busk at Dusk’ and Chris Helme’s excellent Ruby Tuesdays at Sotano’s, the dive bar beneath Kennedy’s in Little Stonegate.
We got to know Sam and his passion for Bob Dylan; indeed, he was working on a dissertation at York Uni, it was on the lyrics of Bob Dylan’s classic break-up album, Blood On The Tracks. It seemed that every musician in York wanted to play alongside him.
He was eager to learn too. David Ward Maclean shared ideas and we introduced Sam to the music of John Prine and Eef Barzelay’s Clem Snide, and one of my heroes, Loudon Wainwright III.
Within a week of sharing Loudon’s first album with him, he was playing the classic, School Days, in the Habit, better than Loudon himself might have played it. I’d never experienced anyone so eager to soak everything up so voraciously.
Meanwhile, he teamed up with Kai West, Ben Crosthwaite and Rupert Engledow in the Hyde Family Jam, taking busking in the city to new heights. And when university ended, he stayed on here, officially a Yorkie now.
Hard to categorise
It wasn’t long before he teamed up with versatile bass-player Bradley Blackwell to form a band with guitarist Conor Hirons (formerly with York favourites, The Littlemores). Jonny Hooker, now the main producer at the city’s burgeoning label, Young Thugs, drummed with the band for a while before Jack Williams joined to complete the line-up.
As with all the best original bands, their music was hard to categorise. They jokingly refer to their genre as ‘miserable disco’ but that fails to do justice to intelligent lyrics that stick in the memory, riding on a wave of melodic rock with a dramatic edge to it.
They have been favourably compared to Alt-J, Portishead and Massive Attack. But those comparisons hint only at a fraction of the potential of this band. The lyrical brilliance sets this band in a class of their own, where they might be better compared to Radiohead or Elbow.
They quickly caught the ear of a couple of music industry insiders and, though a record deal soon followed, they resisted rushing to make their first album. They have wisely taken their time with extensive touring and one-off gigs, honing their craft, writing and growing a loyal fanbase.
Along the way, they have been championed by influential broadcasters, including Huw Stephens, Tom Robinson and Annie Mac.
You’ll have gathered that I’m not in a position to give an unbiased opinion of the album here, but you’ll have to take me at my word when I say that Human Contact is a great debut album.
The jury is out as to whether the title is a stroke of prescient brilliance during these socially isolated times… but the 13 tracks showcase The Howl & The Hum’s versatility and lyrical deftness, and live up to the promise of the early singles and videos they have released in the last three years.
Some fans may be surprised by what is not included in this set. If you are even remotely familiar with any of the band’s earlier material that hasn’t made it on to the album, that should give you an idea of the quality on offer.
You can find them on YouTube still, but Godmanchester Chinese Bridge, I Wish I Was A Shark, Portrait I, Murder, and Don’t Shoot The Storm are all excluded so we’ll probably have to wait for TH&TH Greatest Hits Volume 1 a few years from now before they surface again.
Track by track
Here’s a track-by-track flavour of the album.
Love You Like A Gun
Written in the studio, a sparse, unadorned drumbeat kicks things off, overlaid with Sam’s soaring vocal carrying the melody before it bursts into an engaging, near-acapella vocal jousting. An exhilarating opening.
Jack and Bradley’s rhythm section hit a hypnotic groove in this story of yearning to be truly alive. Having seen this on stage, complete with transfixingly jerky performance, I’m reminded of the angular yet warm delivery that Devo used to employ in their compelling stage show.
Hall Of Fame
The lyric imagines a band on their tenth anniversary tour, attempting to recapture their youth and former glories.
‘When the waves go still
Will you be backstage?…
… You tell me I’m holding
My past by the throat
But I saw the photos
You keep in your coat’
A contender for one of the best break-up songs. The lyric imagines a hand-over moment, as in the film Bridge of Spies, when a couple split, but they have to return each other’s belongings, as if the items themselves were hostages, each item being emblematic of the broken relationship. A song of rare elegaic beauty.
I first heard this slice of brooding menace at Chris Sherrington’s excellent Fulford Arms venue, and it grows stronger with repeated listening. A slow-paced ghostly tale told by someone haunted by their own imagination. A tone-poem for a film yet to be shot.
The Only Boy Racer Left On The Island
While paying their dues on the touring circuit, the band played Orkney. In their cramped tour van they were overtaken by a youngster on the island, as if in a race; fully expecting other boy racers to be following, but all they got was the same boy overtaking them again and again, circling the island alone, endlessly.
Conor’s delicate, understated guitar holds this gem together, while the lyric hints at childhood, masculinity, loss, loneliness, family and belonging. Yet through it all, there is a note of hope that ‘No man gets left behind.’
A simply astonishing track.
Got You On My Side
Deceptively simple idea conveyed with subtle repetition. The speaker can’t quite declare his love, that might come later. But the stepping stone is to acknowledge the value of the relationship:
‘You take me for Jekyll and for Hyde
Baby I’m glad that I got you on my side’
Until I Found A Rose
When a friend of Sam’s found the love of his life, it turned his fortunes around. Fortunately, for the imagery of the song, the significant other was called Rose.
A Hotel Song
First airing for a new song from a poem Sam wrote while on tour, imagining a world-weary entertainer still moving from hotel to hotel, and remembering how, as a born entertainer, ‘You should’ve seen me at seventeen.’ As with all these lyrics, the filmic sense of mood created is almost palpable; this being somewhere between Paris Texas and The Florida Project.
Modestly described by Sam as his attempt to recreate a melodic pop song of the type he liked as a 17-year-old. But this is altogether more adult:
‘We’ll quit smoking
After this cigarette
We’ll quit smoking
But I don’t want to yet…
….I think we’re addicted
To more than just the cigarette’
Sweet Fading Silver
There are so many stand-out moments on the album, so it’s hard to single out any one individual track. But this six-and-a-half-minute epic is a strong contender, with the band working seamlessly as a unit, slowly building to a magnificent climax.
It’s a tale of a lost romance, perfectly capturing the emptiness and longing of remembering the moments. A kind of snapshot of a lost past, all symbolised in the memories of what happened in ‘Your Dad’s Fiat Punto in sweet fading silver.’
When the climax comes, we’re urged to ‘Hold on to the past cos the future’ll haunt you’ before fading out, ‘Drunk in the back of your car again.’ A masterpiece.
And while you’re still reeling from the majesty of Sweet Fading Silver, we’re bumped down to earth with what Sam describes as a ‘kind of murder ballad.’ It’s another cinematic lyric with the singer, who ‘burnt out at 27’, telling someone they should have killed when they had the chance. They’re caught between wanting to let go of someone but not finding the strength to go through with it.
This final track is presented almost as a gimmicky afterthought (on the two-disc 33rpm album, this is in the middle of the disc on side D and requires the turntable to be cranked to 45rpm!) But it’s far from an afterthought. It has a real lyrical punch wrapped up in a sweet tune.
Sam says: “The idea to present it like that, at the end of the album, was influenced by LCD Soundsystem. On their album Sound of Silver, they threw in a final end-of-album track, New York I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down. It seemed like one sweet thing, but turned into something else.”
Well, TH&TH succeed. Set against a church organ and a hymn-like delivery, it opens with the sweet-sounding:
‘Such a beautiful day
To sit in the dark
While the world turns away’
But by the end of the song we’re told:
‘Pigs fly in the world
Pigs land the job
Pigs get the girl.’
A clever twist to end a stunning debut.