Though the name John Howie Jr. may not be familiar, many readers will be familiar with his band, The Two Dollar Pistols. A collaboration in 1999 with Tift Merritt launched the solo career of that highly-regarded alt-country singer-songwriter. Though Not Tonight (Suah Sounds) is not a Two Dollar Pistols release, it is closer, sonically, to that EP of duets than, say, the honky-tonk of Here Tomorrow, Gone Today. And again, though this is not a Two Dollar Pistols release, two of his bandmates Scott McCall (electric and baritone guitar, drum programming) and Mark O’Brien (bass) play on the album. Howie’s guitar work drives the sparse arrangements. The bare but beautiful title track consists of only Howie’s acoustic guitar and vocals, while “All Your Worst Fears” finds Howie on the guitar and drums, backed up only by Jay Brown (Tift Merritt) on bass and Nathan Golub (Mountain Goats, Mandolin Orange) on pedal steel guitar. In more elaborate orchestrations, Sarah Glasco’s cello provides tender strings, and Eric Peterson (electric and baritone guitar) of Sarah Shook & The Disarmers and Dave Hartman (drums) of Southern Culture on the Skids provide veteran, countrified sounds to several tracks.
The songs on Not Tonight chronicle a breakup in the most raw, intimate way. Howie opens his heart to the listener in a honest, confessional tone. On the first lines of the album, “She stays out late most every night these days / And I can’t say that I fault her for her ways” from the song “Wish My Heart,” Howie tells us that album is as much about owning up to his faults as it is placing blame on a former lover. He makes this explicit a few lines later: “When it comes to lousy calls I’ve made a few.” That’s not to say there aren’t some utterly vicious stabs at his ex-lover. On “Never Could Say Yes,” he sings, “Now it’s like everyone’s climbing on your train.”
Not Tonight does not make for comfortable listening, but it is compelling. It does not retreat to tired country stereotypes, like finding comfort in alcohol. It penetrates to the core of the artist’s feelings and the problems in this ugly, messed up relationship. It doesn’t hold back about infidelity, songs about which have always been a part of country music. Most of those songs though, don’t reach the level of introspection that Howie has achieved on Not Tonight. Not Tonight is a country breakup album of unusual clarity and emotional resonance. Give it a listen, here: http://www.johnhowiejr.com/