You might know Howie Beck as the producer of Idols of Exile, the latest solo album by Jason Collett of Broken Social Scene. However, what you probably don't know is that Beck's self-titled third solo album is also garnering major attention amongst the constantly growing Toronto music scene. Guest appearances by friends like Broken Social Scene's Leslie Feist ("I Need Light") and Ed Harcourt ("Don't Be Afraid") sound completely genuine, almost like Feist was having a cup of coffee at Beck's apartment and he quietly mentioned to her that she would sound great on one of the new tracks he was working on.
Album opener,"Alice," starts with an innocently strummed guitar that sounds as if Beck is learning the chords as he's playing, almost like it's the first he ever wrote. Howie is just realizing that he can play guitar and sing at the same time and as soon as he realized this, he ran to his apartment and wrote his first song about his girlfriend, Alice, that he had just broken up with, but of course, still loves. The song could be on any soundtrack to any loss of innocence story you've ever read (or seen). "Alice says she was born into this world for you/but she said that to the last one too," cries Beck, warning the world not to get involved with this girl while silently hoping the song will bring her back.
Songs like "Zombie Girl," "Don't Be Afraid," and "Everybody Sold Out" will sell any listener of such bands as Nada Surf, Rogue Wave, or the Long Winters. It's sweet pop that doesn't struggle to be "cool" or make an attempt to become anything more than it is. Beck is the kind of songwriter you root for. You can't help but like him because he's not trying to shove his songs down your throat. His relaxed attitude begs to be played in the late afternoon of a crummy spring day.
For such a low-key album, Beck sometimes lacks the emotion in his voice that would convince the listener that the songs he's singing need to be heard. His songs are full of the "I just learned how to play guitar" guitar lines and void of the instrumentation that could clutter the simplicity that he is striving for. But on albums like Elliott Smith's Either/Or or any Paul Westerberg solo venture that seem to strive on home recorded sweetness, Beck lacks the vocal muscle that makes characters like Smith and Westerberg instantly believable. Though his voice is beautiful, it sometimes lacks the unidentifiable aspect that makes me love one singer and not the other. His bio explains, "On Howie Beck, one still unmistakably hears the articulate, unaffected voice of Howie Beck." Unfortunately, they might be right.
Even with the quiet frustration I had with understanding Beck's voice, the songwriting talent he has is unmistakable. His songs are timid, but show a sense of undeniable confidence that makes him come across as a songwriter that writes songs only to prove to himself that he can. There's a line from a Jayhawks song called "Trouble" that sums up this album perfectly - "Everything that goes around comes around in a bittersweet lament."