About 30 seconds into the third CD from Michael Howard, who grew up playing in punk bands but now pledges allegiance to acoustic folk, I was already becoming a fan.
The first of Gasoline Dream’s 10 self-penned tracks, a lilting love song called “Meet Me at the Front Lines,” is a lyrically rich minor classic that reminds me a bit of underappreciated 60s singer/songwriter Patrick Sky. Much of the rest of this minimally produced, mostly live-in-the-studio album is just as impressive. On standouts like the title cut, “Hog Butcher, Hog Butcher,” and the exquisite “Cigarettes Are Fine,” the Anchorage, Alaska-based Howard showcases an ability to write about familiar subjects in fresh ways.
Two cohorts provide backup on upright bass, piano, pump organ, and percussion, but Howard employs their instrumentation economically. His acoustic guitar and distinctive vocals—which both sometimes recall early Donovan—are what you’ll mostly hear on Gasoline Dream, and it’s a testament to his talent that they’re more than enough to captivate.
Remember the first time you encountered Steve Goodman, John Prine, Steve Forbert, Nick Drake, or Jesse Winchester? That’s how I feel listening to Howard—as if I’ve discovered the real deal, a one-of-a-kind singer who also loves words and knows how to put them together in memorable ways. Like Dylan’s lyrics, Howard’s can be enigmatic, but they always draw you in and make you want to get to the root of what he’s saying. I can’t wait to find out where he goes from here.