Whimsical is a word I do not often use.
But for Providence band O.B. Howard’s self-titled debut album, the word seems to sink in as a rightful adjective somewhere between the reverb soaked mandolin and the road-less-traveled harmonies of songwriters Alexandra Dutremble and Buck St. Thomas. Both Buck and Alexandra approach O.B. Howard through their individual outlooks as dual songwriters. Alexandra’s solo project Tomorrow and Tomorrow along with Buck’s drum work in the band Cat Has Claws give context to where they are both coming from, but the album O.B. Howard stands alone as something all-together different.
The track “Dreamy” sets the tone for the album with recycling, almost chanted vocal melodies that stick around and let the words become heard as they flow over them. “Dreamy” also presents the concise vibe of the album. Simple in instrumentation, sticking mostly with guitar, banjo and the mandolin work of session musician Keith Barrette and layered with the occasion visiting instrument such as the vintage organ in “Afloat” or the string work in “Trip.”
Throughout the album, it is the vocal work and lyrics that stand out, with clever diminished phrases and almost trancelike moments that carry melodies throughout a track. Seven Swans-era Sufjan Stevens comes to mind in the plucky, transforming sounds. While a simple cycle of I, IV, V and VI chords might be all it takes to make a good folk song, O.B. Howard takes the extra step to let the words be supported by orchestrated vocals that almost offers a lesson in unique harmonies and chordal arrangements that are complex – at times brooding and unexpected – all while being held together by melodies that remain accessible.
A track such as “Demure” presents the unconventional folk ballad leading into the short segue “Reckless” that ditches the acoustic orchestra present on the album in favor of a bit of production flair before returning us to the familiar territory of a happily strumming mandolin on “Hold the Phone.”
There is complete intention in this album and the songs go through moments of being stripped down to a single mandolin strumming to a lush tapestry of keys, reverb guitars and the ever present tight harmonies of Alexandra and Buck.
In listening to this album, it is almost as if each song is a movement in an hour-long piece of music. “Whale Song” is a standout track on the album co-written by Nate Milton. Nate Milton also collaborated with the band, using the instrumentation from “Blue and Gray” in a beautiful cartoon he made called Delusions that can be seen on Nate Milton’s Vimeo page.
O.B. Howard is a wonderful live act to see around Providence and they bring an eclectic palette to the stage wherever they play. Coming from a place of stripped down recording, I’ve always been someone who records something when it is raw, unpolished and incomplete. O.B. Howard gives me pause and deep respect in the amount of thoughtful moments and nuances present on the album. Each harmony sounds like they have been tested and worked over. The occasional banjo or tambourine or lead guitar is always arranged in the way a painting would be placed on the wall of gallery.