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Review: Ben Howard – The Burgh Island EP

Fresh from a Mercury nomination, this is the moment when the world is waiting for Ben Howard to firm things up, grow, mature, confirm all that promise and establish an identity… all that bildungsroman stuff. Everybody knows you can’t really walk the line between BBC Radio 2 airplay and a position in the ranks of the British musical avant-garde for very long.

So, to delay the notorious ‘difficult second album’ syndrome, Howard has come up with The Burgh Island EP. But, does it tell which camp he is going to fall into?

Burgh Island is still drive-time material. It’s listenable, and just inoffensive enough to still be highly marketable while narrowly missing out on being highly interesting. Its still quite tough to shed the idea that Howard is a less ginger, post-pubescent Ed Sheeran with a surfboard; or, a Gotye minus the body paint.

Much has Ben made of his similarity to John Martyn, and sure enough ‘Burgh Island’, the EP’s title track, is where Howard gets closest to his grizzly vocals and his eerie palimpsests of loops and reverbs. But before Howard can stand shoulder to shoulder with Martyn, he needs to smoke a few more cigars and battle several bouts of alcoholism.

Truth be told, it’s all a bit squeaky clean. ‘To Be Alone’ takes a stab at reaching for something truly sinister, but ruins it with a standard mellow rock refrain. ‘Oats in the Water’ ends with some fairly indulgent guitar work and by the time it finishes you feel you might have been watching a 3-hour Bruce Springsteen mega-set. But then Bruce can pull that off; he’s Bruce, after all. The Radio 2 listeners will love it, though.

It’s ‘Esmerelda’ which opens Burgh Island with its incessant, macabre finger-picking, hinting that Howard holds a dark promise; one that doesn’t have to be tempered by the demands of mass marketing or overdone to the point of melodrama. Maybe Howard is destined to become another Bon Iver figure, reaping the reward of both pop success and critical acclaim – although, if his marketing team don’t back off, perhaps he will never get the chance to see how much of a great he could’ve become.

- Katherine Travers

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