Album Review : Elaine Howley – The Distance Between Heart And Mouth : experimental, electronic dream pop that twists deeper.

The Breakdown

Restrained and thoughtful, sometimes tense, sometimes teasing, more knotty and narrative than simply a set of songs - it’s a record which through subtle surprises, rises way above any dream pop generalisations.
Touch Sensitive 8.8

Conceived before, within and beyond pandemic times, Cork based musician and underground shaper Elaine Howley has emerged with a bold personal record ‘The Distance Between Heart And Mouth’ on Belfast’s Touch Sensitive label (available from 12th August).

Best known for bringing her distinct experimental sensibilities to The Altered Hours’ psych-rock as well as the song based electronica of Howlbux and Crevice, the album sees Howley stepping out from the shadows and thriving. That’s not to say ‘The Distance Between Heart And Mouth’ is a brash, ‘look at me’ extravaganza. It’s restrained and thoughtful, sometimes tense, sometimes teasing, more knotty and narrative than simply a set of songs. The source of the album was a daily audio listening diary that Howley kept on a four-track cassette through 2019 and 20, a diligent mixtape of memories that connects the nine tracks with an eclectic flow. You never know quite what is coming next on a record which, through its subtle surprises, rises way above any dream pop generalisations.

Listen to the first track ‘Silent Talk’ and you gradually get the drift. Taking a processional pace and orchestrated by synth chord falls plus cavernous guitar, the song surges and breaks around Howley’s pristine vocal, hovering between fragile and forthright. Elements of the Cocteaus’ glide, Broadcast’s cool detachment and Jane Weaver’s clarity peep through but this is music ruffled by Howley’s more avant perspective and the anxiety simmering below the surface. When she sings ‘took me sixteen weeks to look you in the eye’ you can feel the strain hidden beneath that almost deadpan delivery. ‘Autumn Speak’ is disguised with similar detachment. A song that Howley says ‘is a celebration of endings and allowing endings to occur’ there may be a dry euro-pop straightness to the vocal but the agitated, glitch rhythms, gothic organ chords and shock of distorted guitar keeps you peering nervously over your shoulder.

Elsewhere ‘The Distance Between Heart And Mouth’ often settles for less abstraction but without losing any impact. ‘To The Test’ sways to a looped and luscious trip-hop shimmy, Howley’s voice quivering and fragile with a whisper of Beth Gibbons floating through the haze. Taking a similar thrill in repetition, the bouncing ‘Person Count’ brings some eighties electro adrenaline, catchy and confident in its swirling synth wash and near vocoder moments. Even more infectious is the warm, bluesy ‘Song For Mary Black’. Here Howley remembers the sounds that surrounded her youth to conjure up sumptuous mood music with a yearning synth melody that Moby would die for.

Flashes of a post-punk Slits/Raincoats/Electrelane heritage also seem to drift into Howley’s wavelength on the LP, from the skeletal hefty dub pop of ‘So So’ to its partner ‘See Saw Seen’, a lo-fi bubblegum skank that clicks and clatters to the fade. Maybe these songs miss some of the intrigue of the rest of the album but you soon forget the orthodoxy because the vibe is so authentic and irresistible.

Inevitably any record that looks back to move forwards can often get lost in its own retrospection but the strength of Howley’s debut is that her return to past listening has given her confidence not to hold back. All round the record brings something fresh and open to the increasingly bland indie-pop territory. Catch the pairing of surf guitar reverberations and almost spoken word in the unsettling ‘Buried Way Out’ or the Ex-Machina balladry of ‘Archaeological Longing’ where dark-wave beats meet a chilling vocal interweave. When Howley robotically repeats ‘What is the purpose of this vessel’ there’s an emptiness that seems deeply personal.

Such underlying emotions and the struggle to bring them to the surface are at the centre of this powerful release. Sure the music bristles with experimental edginess but that doesn’t obscure the song craft or the clarity of the statements being made. Elaine Howley’s ‘The Distance Between Heart And Mouth’ bravely tells it like it is and we should be thankful that she does.

Pick up your copy of ‘The Distance Between Heart And Mouth’ from your local record store or direct from:

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