Can one ever truly leave home? Sure, The Ramones left home in 1977 but I’m talking about in the truest sense of the term. I left Pennsylvania in 2002, wide-eyed and optimistic about what waited for me in Washington State (it turns out – my ancestors – but that is a story for another time). I have to say though, as much as I love the Seattle area – Pennsylvania calls to me in unexpected ways as the years pass. On a recent trip to Montana I found myself creating a mental checklist of ways in which Montana reminded me of Pennsylvania. We can leave where we grew up but home is always where the heart is. The debut album by Heyward Howkins is a stunning exploration of his Pennsylvania roots spun in what is quickly becoming the trademark Philadelphia sound – country-ish Appalachian inspired folk (not to be confused with fellow Pennsylvania natives The Bacon Brothers style of Forosco aka folk-rock-soul-country)

Heyward got his start as lead guitarist in the widely praised Philadelphia band The Trouble With Sweeney. The band was led by Joey Sweeney and released a handful of EP’s and 2 critically acclaimed records. They went on hiatus back in 2004 but it turned out to be a permanent vacation (cue geeky reference to 1987 album by Aerosmith). Those in the know lamented the bands loss, but were able to follow Sweeney via his successful venture Philebrity. To say I was surprised to hear that Heyward Howkins was releasing a solo record 8 years after the hiatus is an understatement – I was absolutely thrilled to be alerted to the fact that this album was out. If you’ve been missing The Trouble With Sweeney you will find much to love here – in fact, I’ll go on record as stating that this is a completely different animal. It is a masterful record that resonates on a universal, yet personal level. Home (in all of its implied meanings) can weigh heavy on the heart.

Bent on breaking coffee dates…(highlights)

Hale & Hearty – the title track has a warm tone – bringing to mind nights spent around the campfire while friends strummed on their guitar and sang in unison. Heyward’s voice glides along with the material, lower in the verses, more inviting during the chorus. Key lyrics:

Go on have another bump ‘til it all feels right
Look at your crowd they are so hale and hearty

Later on the porch foreign bodies getting warm
They aim to fill a whole garage with unhelpful hints from empty jobs
You have been sloughed off by your state; we’re the saints now you’re the snake
Fashion a pillow from your braids, close out your night in east PA

Sugar Sand Stitched Lip – a very catchy song, not coincidentally the single from the record. I did say catchy, but it is also sparse, an interesting juxtaposition. Howkins’ vocals are stunning on this track, conveying emotion with each pronunciation. The focal point is always on Heyward’s voice and his gently strummed guitar, but the sound effects and embellishments hovering in the background are put to good use here. Key lyrics:

Stitched lip I’m a grown man
Laying plans in the sugar sand
God damn I’m a grown man
Tent stakes in the sugar sand

Flash Mob – Micah P. Hinson meets The Jackson 5 in this song, and it is absolutely brilliant. Folk intro with a warbled vocal delivery before moving into a funky section (and…repeat). The bass is lively and a focal point in this song, a nice change of pace. Key lyrics:

Caught in a flash mob
Tsunami of young love
Hey neighbor you’ve been struck
By an army of now what?
Conscription’s been turned off
But enlistment is way up
For the listless and laid off
Bathe our ankles in sweet broth

Hudson Piers – The intro to the song is gently plucked guitar, reminding me of “The Lord God Bird” by Sufjan Stevens. Heyward’s voice comes in, enhancing the lullaby type mood. Well timed horn embellishments and we are looking at a perfect concluding track to this wonderful record. Key lyrics:

Hudson peers men of grout and steel
Hear a caterwaul when they take their meals
But there’s nothing said, they just eat their bread
To prevent the bends

You can follow Heyward Howkins on Facebook, check out his website or head straight over to his Bandcamp site to buy the record. One play of the video embedded in this review and I think you’ll agree with me – this is a very special record. Home can seem far away depending on where we are in life and sometimes music can be the only thing that helps us get through those times. Autumn leaves sighing with the aches of change, a longing in our hearts for the simpler days of youth – a record playing, allowing all of those feelings to feel possible. Heyward Howkins’ debut record is one of those records. Highly recommended.

Verdict: Pennsylvania Calling Me Home

For Fans Of: Honeychurch, Mojave 3, Jeffrey Gaines, Micah P. Hinson

Tracklisting:

  1. Thunderin’ Stop
  2. Hale & Hearty
  3. Spanish Moss
  4. Sugar Sand Stitched Lip
  5. Waist High or Dry
  6. The Raucous Calls of Morning
  7. Flash Mob
  8. The Live Oak
  9. Plume and Orange
  10. Cocaine Bill
  11. Hudson Piers

 

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