Casually but with a little bit of springiness that simmers before disappearing altogether, “Rose Hill” charms us with its simple harmonies and toned-down tempo, but along with the ten songs it’s joined by in Tommy Howell’s American Storyteller, it feels more retrospective than it does on its own. “Possessed” is similarly interpretive depending on the order in which it’s consumed next to the other songs in its parent album’s tracklist, but all in all, there isn’t a stitch of audio here that doesn’t resonate with some part of the listener – regardless of circumstance.
“Hope I Ain’t Dead” has a familiar tone that could have seen the song be covered by a number of artists in different genres, but you can tell that Tommy Howell doesn’t want to get too crazy with his original rendition of the song in American Storyteller. A straightforward, post-country slab of Americana, this tune, plus the broad “Hell of a Life” accounts for several of the best minutes this LP has to offer – mostly because of how unguarded each of these songs feels. Howell is brutally honest with us, whether it serves the compositional structure or not, and his rebellious attitude towards the black-and-white framework of contemporary pop/rock is inspiring, to say the least.
I originally thought “‘88” belonged as a B-side to one of the single-worthy songs here more than it did a main tracklist draw, but after a little more time to think about it, this song is a fiery linchpin of American Storyteller’s midsection. It’s not the surprisingly introspective work that “Cold Dead Hands” is, but it doesn’t need to be to make an impression with us – its frills are purely vocal-centric. I knew Tommy Howell was a good artist before this LP, but his work here is some of the strongest that I’ve had the chance to review from an indie singer/songwriter as of late.
Even a commentarial segue like “Raised by Wolves” doesn’t feel like filler when it’s situated with other songs like “Lady Luck,” “Miss Maybelle” and “‘88” in the near vicinity. The first act in American Storyteller stretches our main man’s legs as an instrumentalist more than anything in the second does, but whether he’s putting his heart on the top of the melody or lobbing it to us wrapped up in poetry that resembles tissue paper from afar, he’s always being real with us in some artistic capacity.
American Storyteller’s opening pair – “Whiskey Demon” and “Rose Hill,” are every bit the yin and yang that listeners should count on when determining how much this album will appeal to their sensibilities, and when I first heard them, I immediately knew I was sitting on a profound offering from Tommy Howell. After a long career that’s allowed for a lot of cathartic performances on camera, Howell still seems like he has a lot that he needs to get off of his chest, and we’re given no choice but to absorb his emotions as they rise to the surface here. It’s both a burden and a bastion of freedom depending on how you look at it, but in either case, this is one amazing LP.