Some music just makes you feel happy when you hear it. Bryan Howell, along with his back-up band The Standalones, makes that kind of music. Every time I listen to their new album Take the Risk, I can’t help but smile (and I sure can do with a lot more of that right now). After more than a year of blood, sweat and tears, Bryan Howell & The Standalones dropped Take the Risk in early August of this year, and it’s packed with ten stellar tunes that draw from a variety of rich influences: rock and roll, rockabilly, garage rock, power-pop, country, surf and indie rock, as well as the timeless music produced by Motown, Sun and Stax records. If all that’s not enough to get you excited, I don’t know what will.
Howell was born and raised in upstate New York, where he recorded Take the Risk, but subsequently relocated to Nashville to immerse himself in the vibrant music scene there. In a great interview with Shameless Promotions & Media (which you can view here), he stated that “pretty much every bedrock genre of American music—jazz, blues, country, rock and roll—has deep origin roots in the South. From any standpoint as a musician—great recording studios, great musical instruments, great venues, great players, great industry connections—Nashville has it.”
Along with Howell – who writes the songs, plays rhythm guitar and sings lead vocals – for the album tracking in New York, The Standalones included Brandon Brault on drums, Matthew Copperwheat on guitar, and Dan Phillips on bass. After moving to Nashville, Howell assembled a new line-up for The Standalones with Ethan Sims on lead and rhythm guitar, and backing vocals, Wes Burkhart on bass, and Darren Darling on drums.
I don’t normally quote an artist very much in my reviews, but Howell has so eloquently described the album and the meaning behind his songs that I feel compelled to paraphrase him throughout this post. In another excellent interview with Jordan Mohler for the website Kill The Music (which you can read here), Bryan explained that the album “is a bit of a loose concept album, because it’s about putting yourself out there and going for it, picking yourself up as you realize not everything in life is perfect and living the best you can anyway. I guess at this point I’m dealing with basic human themes, wrestling with ideas about being human in what I feel is both a hyper-connected and really impersonal and cold time, and through the prism of growing up in the Rust Belt and what I see in society and people around me. But that said, there are also songs that are just about classic rock and roll stuff about girls, nights on the town, and having fun.”
Now that I’ve provided a bit of background on Howell and where he’s coming from, let’s get to the music. The album opens with the rousing track “Your Saturday Night,” a wonderful, high-energy rock and roll treat that sets the tone for the entire album. A strong guitar solo kicks things off, followed by an explosion of rhythm and bass, big drums and Howell’s exuberant vocals that conjure up the joys of letting loose on a Saturday night. The guitar riffs and Howell’s vocals are awesome, and I could listen to this song over and over again! The entertaining video is great too. Howell wanted the video to show the band playing in a venue where a lot of bands start out – a typical suburban garage – and end with him living the artist’s dream of entering a theater to play a concert.
The album’s energy keeps flowing with the second track “Apologies and Promises.” The song’s fun, upbeat rock and roll arrangement contrasts with more serious lyrics that speak to letting go of negative, non-supportive people in your life: “Too much time wasting away, like apologies and promises / useless things I never miss / Too much time with so much to say / waiting for an open space / looking for an honest face.”
Seriousness is cast aside for the deliriously fun throwback tune “Hot Summer Strut.” Combining rockabilly, surf and malt-shop vibes, the great guitar riffs and percussion are enhanced by hot saxophone work by Sam Kinninger. “Not Like the Movies” slows things down and brings us back to earth, with more serious lyrics about how life is not all happy endings like in the movies. Howell said that ‘movies’ is a euphemism for other things such as TV, social media or video games that people get lost in. At times, his raw vocals remind me of Mick Jagger’s in some of the Stones’ slower ballads like “Wild Horses” or “Waiting on a Friend.”
The subject is still a bit serious but the tempo ramps back up in “Time Marches On,” a track about how we all change as we go through life, and some of the friendships that once meant so much to us eventually fade away as we move in different directions. Moving on in life is the subject of the poignant “Tough to Say Goodbye,” a very personal song for Howell. In an interview with Sound In The Signals, he stated that it “took on much greater depth when I vividly realized during pre-production and studio time that there was no way I could stay in upstate NY to pursue my music career. [It was] a somewhat bittersweet but cathartic song to track.” The tremolo guitars in the song are sublime.
The energy level is turned all the way up in the rock and roll anthem ‘Cause I’m a Lion.” The song’s a defiant “fuck off” to conformity and boxing people in with expectations that don’t feel right for them: “And I’ve been stuck in this cage too long / I’m sick and tired of all the apathy / No guts no passion / No dreams left to dream.” The rapid-paced, blistering guitar solos would make Chuck Berry proud. “Candy Store Love” brings a return of the catchy, malt-shop rockabilly that makes the album such a joy. And “This is the Future,” with it’s punchy, stop and start guitar riffs, speaks to letting go of past hurts and bitterness and not allowing them to ruin your life from this point forward.
The closing track is the beautiful “Angel from the Lonely Coast.” Howell described the song as “touching on the rough underbelly of the Rust Belt – unemployment, heroin, fading neighborhoods – and a shaded biography of a few people I knew in the middle of it. Reflecting on my hope that these people can better their life and break free of their cycle, while noting the quiet bravery and heroism of people living honestly and strongly through an atmosphere like this.” He felt it was the most fitting song to end the album. Guest saxophonist Sam Kinninger returns to lay down some haunting solos over the gorgeous swirling guitars. It’s a standout track and one of my favorites on the album. Take a listen:
To sum up, Take The Risk is a superb album by a tremendously talented and earnest singer/songwriter. The amount of time, effort and dedication Howell put into making this album is impressive and it shows. To learn more about Bryan Howell, check out his website. Support him by following on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. Stream Take the Risk, as well as his 2013 EP Lightning Through My Soul, on Spotify, and purchase them on iTunes, Bandcamp, or other sites offering music for purchase.