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Catherine Howe - What a Beautiful Place

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Artist: Catherine Howe

Album: What a Beautiful Place

Label: The Numero Group

Review date: Apr. 13, 2007

If you want to see where people’s heads were at in 1999, you don’t read the revisionists. You go to the library, and you sift through the discards, picking out anything involving fair trade, the Clinton impeachment, hip-pop and Y2K. The best way to research an era is to dig the artifacts that weren’t supposed to survive. To put it another way: no committed aficionados of popular culture need Gay Talese to explain to them that, as soon as you create a binary winner/loser breakdown, the losers almost always have more interesting tales and more acute recall.

This is what makes The Numero Group the numero uno on the reissue food chain, if you’ll allow me a flight of uninformed conjecture. They don’t just bring back stuff that sounds weird or interesting or good; any time-privileged MP3 blogger can do that ‘til eight in the mornin’ and not make the world much richer for it. Every Numero reish comes with a story more raw and more poignant than anything VH1 would greenlight. Each of these CDs, in their liner notes and in their bits, speaks its own truth, independent of any retroactively defined zeitgeist or other such nonsense, on the times that inspired it and the industry bullshit that kept it back.

Neither Catherine Howe’s music nor her backstory has the sort of rage, duplicity and misery that envelops some of Numero’s R&B compilations, but it reveals a lot about 1969 that boomer romantics seem to have forgotten. Howe was barely out of her teens at the time, writing haunting, plaintive melodies and lyrics about childhood memories, twisted innocence and changing times, disregarded in her Northern England hometown and equally alien in London, retreating to nature for inspiration. In producer Bobby Scott, her music found its puffed-up superego, a fading power-player with a penchant for broad, lush arrangements. The curse of overproduction may have spoiled a good deal of turn-of-the-decade introspection-on-wax (much as the naturalist/hippie dream withdrew into itself while the modern industrial juggernaut continued apace), but Howe’s meek wonderment is charming enough to keep its balance in the baroque setting. The piano and horn figures don’t make the impossible primordial yearnings of “My Child” any less sympathetic. The portentous strings don’t make the conflicted kiss-off “It’s Not Likely” any easier on anyone.

The cryptic spoken interludes still make the whole thing impossibly sad, even now that - after foundering on Howe’s profound naivete and Scott’s bullish cynicism for nearly four decades - it’s finally ripe for reappraisal.

By Emerson Dameron

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