English musician Charles Howl returns with his second album My Idol Family, which follows on from his 2015 debut Sir Vices. Enthralled by soundtracks and pop music in all its forms, Howl updates classic motifs to create a signature aesthetic. Introducing strings and lush orchestration to dazzling effect, he is comfortable with both wide-open song structures and intimate headphone tracks. With this album Howl reveals his true talent as a songwriter and arranger, mixing well-crafted storytelling with a dry wit, it is also more ambitious, touching on themes of idol worship, friends and the family unit.
He returned to Amsterdam to write and record the album, a city he knew well having run away there when he was eighteen. As he explains: ‘It was meant to be a three-day stereotypical end-of-school weekend with friends but when they were returning home I didn’t see anything for me back there and so I stayed in Amsterdam and got a job handing out flyers for a disgusting pub crawl for the tourists.’
When he was planning the recording of this new album, he made a conscious decision to get away from London with all the distractions and opinions, plus, studio time there is expensive. Howl had always been a fan of James Murphy and wanted to emulate, in his own way, the experience that LCD Soundsystem had when they recorded This is Happening, where they went to a mansion in L.A. and all dressed in white and uploaded clips of them hanging out and recording. As Howl explains: ‘I’ve never thought that kind of thing is only for big bands with loads of money. So I researched places in Amsterdam and found a reggae studio on the outskirts in a suburb called Weesp. It included an Air b&b room and so I sub let my room in London and booked a month in the studio.’
Accompanying Howl in Amsterdam was fellow Proper Ornaments member and drummer, Bobby Syme, who is a gifted producer and engineer, and took the reins in the studio. Most of the album was recorded between the two of them, with additional string arrangements by Richard Jones and with Victoria Hamblett on backing vocals.
With My Idol Family, Howl has found his voice both with his more confident singing style but also in his lyrics, which are more prominent in the mix. The album title emerged from the overarching themes of family and idols, and how people idolise celebrities and try to emulate their lifestyle. This is encapsulated in the song Meet Lou’s Needs, about so many people in music trying to copy Lou Reed’s look, music, attitude and his drug habits. As Charles says: ‘I love Lou Reed but I don’t want to see shit imitations of him every time you go see a show or after party.’ Idols are also flagged up in the song John Albarn, where he imagines two of his musical heroes as one seamless being: John Lennon + Damon Albarn = John Albarn.
The opening track Death of Print speaks of Howl’s concern for the death of print press. Based on a true story, it tells of a 1970s zine in Berkley which got shut down and disbanded a group of friends. As he says: ‘I’ve always been concerned with our ever increasing seclusion, with much help from the internet and personal social media profiles.’
oodbye Sleep tells of the time he drove his friends garage punk band on tour when he was 20, and was caught for a driving offence in Malmo, Sweden and sent to prison for one month over the Christmas period. ‘This song is about not being able to sleep properly the first week or so, thinking of my friends outside carrying on the tour and heading home,’ says Charles.
At times rapturously melodic and others jarringly off-kilter, there’s a real variety of sounds on My Idol Family. Howl didn’t want to be afraid to get cheesy with this record and as a result, it feels more honest. Without the pressure of having to be faithful to one particular genre or trying to fit in to the favoured psych revival of recent years, he draws on eclectic influences to embrace a wider scope, thus creating something that sounds refreshingly unique and remarkably modern.