Bryan Howell - 'Take The Risk' Track By Track

Credit: Mark DiOrio
Recent Nashville transplant Bryan Howell is set to release his album Take The Risk on August 5th. Howell teamed up with Sound In The Signals to host a contest where 2 lucky fans will win a prize pack featuring Lightning Through My Soul CD, Welcome To The World CD, Take The Risk CD, "Bryan Howell and The Standalones" stickers, a handwritten, personally addressed and signed Thank You note, and an autographed poster from his last gig in NY before moving to Nashville. Go HERE to enter the contest. Read below to see how he describes the upcoming album track by track.

Bryan: "Making my first full-length album, Take The Risk, was a wild ride. From the moment I stated out loud that I was going to make a complete record, and hold nothing back as a songwriter and artist to make the best one I could, things took off in all kinds of wild and unimaginable ways. Luckily, my core backing band, The Standalones (Brandon Brault, drums, Matthew Copperwheat, guitar, Dan Phillips, bass) all stepped things up to bring their best playing to the studio, while the guests and session players we brought in didn't hold back either. My co-producer, engineer and mixer, Jeff Aderman, brought a wealth of ideas with him on how to get the best performances and best sounds at once, while acting as a kind of mad scientist cheerleader and guiding hand. In the meantime, I aimed to bring my best and most cohesive group of songs together, while keeping my chin up riding a manic wave of ups and downs through a blur of songwriting, rehearsal, tracking, and much more.

Below is my track-by-track breakdown of the album, with some of my thoughts and remembrances of this time and the songs that came out of them. I hope you enjoy reading them, and get some cool insight into the album.

Your Saturday Night
The opener that sets the stage, a kind of overture and tease of what is to come….a song about the freedom and promise of Saturday night, and opening up and letting go in that mindset of it. Not written toward just one person specifically, but for anyone who might need to pick themselves up a bit, build up some courage and get out there to go talk to that person they see across the bar, head out to blow off some steam after a long week, or whatever else you need on that most promising and special night of the week. A Spectorian mash-up of sounds here: guitars blasting through cranked Marshalls, big drum fills and rumbling bass, female backing singers on the chorus, wild energy.

Apologies and Promises
It began as a straightforward rock song. I wrote it about the situations I felt I was in that were repetitive and worthless—keeping my end of the bargain up for people who had no such equal intent and didn't have my best interests in mind, and breaking free of that cycle. It turned into a gleeful, rollicking bit that started to touch on my Motown/Stax influence (especially the verses), with everyone involved adding their two cents in. A big drum intro, dropping out to just the rhythm section in the first verse, adding handclaps and a call-and-response style vocal finale. Everybody was having fun on this one, and I think you can hear it.

Hot Summer Strut
If “Apologies and Promises” doesn't sound like we're having fun, well, this sure does. An ode to summer, where the temperature goes up, and with it do the cuts of the dresses. No deep existential crises being wrestled with here, just basking in the classic rock and roll themes of girls, sun and fun. Little effort was made to bring the full-on, wild party vibe of this into the studio—this one always just starts up and keeps going, and everyone can pile on with ease. Brilliant sax work by guest Sam Kinninger comes to a climax which was aimed entirely at sounding just like a moment of pure sonic delirium, the joy of just making noise, before the party starts up again and heads to a fade-out.

Not Like The Movies
Alright, now we get serious. It's not all wine and roses. I wrote this about the loss of innocence and the gap between what all kinds of media paints as the idyllic, fairytale life we all should be living….and the true reality of how life isn't that. I'm an admitted movie fanatic, but I feel there can be something very dangerous and unhealthy about being more invested in a made-up world than living with real people and their talents and faults. And using “movies” in here is kind of a stand-in and euphemism for various other things, such as TV, social media, video games and so on that people lose themselves in, at the expense of facing that in good and bad ways, real life is nothing like the make-believe environment they've immersed themselves in. Frequent dynamic shifts and “attack mode” style of playing are meant to underline frustration, confusion and sadness with someone facing this. My guitar solo is purposefully the least melodic thing I've probably ever played to mesh with that. It took several takes to really get into that kind of properly vicious, atonal kind of feel that would truly fit with the track, as well as the right balance on the vocals to bring it all together. 

Time Marches On
You grow up, and then you grow apart. Written after reflecting on how some of my closest relationships in the past, which were filled with moments of pure joy and human connection, ended up fading and collapsing. Sad, yes, but there's also the acknowledgment here that people change and go in different directions, and no one is really to blame for when these relationships rust and fail, and all involved must move on. This song was actually written under major duress—the initial start of tracking was only a week or two away, and another song we were rehearsing to track wasn't clicking. So I worked on this feverishly from scratch into the early morning hours every day for a week on little sleep, hoping at least it would come out decent. The reaction when I started teaching the Standalones the song, and when people started hearing the playback on the first mix, was truly shocking in the best way.

'Cause I'm A Lion
Now we enter the second half of the album, or as sequenced for the (hopefully near-future) vinyl release, the start of Side 2. This one is all rampaging energy and attitude. You can't hold me down, don't force me to be what I'm not, don't try to put me in the box with so many people playing it safe with their jobs and their mortgages. What's fine for someone is not for everyone. Features one of my favorite lyrics that I've written, about being an artist and being “out there” for all to see with the mix of confidence and weakness that is always present onstage and during creation. ”I'm bulletproof and I'm vulnerable/I can't be more alive”. Capped off by a great solo by Matt, swinging and thunderous elephants-on-the-loose playing by Brandon and Dan in the rhythm section, and my snottiest , most swaggering “f--k you” vocals coming to a head in the outro.  Trivia fact: the gear-shift in the bridge, with wordless female vocals, was referred to during tracking at one point as the “punk Pink Floyd part”.

Tough To Say Goodbye
We downshift here for a moment again. A song originally written about growing out of your comfort zone and pursuing your potential as a person, despite the risk and fears you have, and that are projected on to you for admitting this. This one took on much greater depth when I vividly realized during pre-production and studio time that there was no way I could stay in upstate NY to pursue my music career. What were once veiled lyrics about “playing chess with destiny”, “I feel so guilty for dreaming in color/When everyone around me is blind”, and “About to turn my back on this town” suddenly rang with truth. A somewhat bittersweet but cathartic song to track. The pulsing tremolo guitar track was done very late one night near the end of a long but productive session, and just as I was nailing it, the vintage Fender amp we were using bombed out its tremolo side. Not wanting to lose our momentum, and with no other options so late at night,  Jeff and I used a variety of basic handyman tools lying around the studio to jury-rig its knobs in place to prevent the short. Minutes later I had laid down the tremolo overdubs you hear on this, “Lion” and “Angel”.

Candy Store Love
Perhaps the most lighthearted tune on the album, this is one that I wrote initially as somewhat of an exercise and an experiment, but it grew up and became its own thing. Sunny neo-rockabilly that nods to my love of classic California pop, surf and Sun records cuts in what might be obvious (or subtle) ways. This earns its spot on the album for its vibe—it's a counterpart to the darkness of some of the tracks preceding it, and shows an arc of positive energy and joy in the track list that fits the basic concept of the whole album. The song title was one of dozens I scatted out during the writing process, and just seemed to explain the feeling of the whole thing more than any other one I could come up with. Many times in music, the best route to go is the most obvious and intuitive-feeling one.

This Is The Future
Initially inspired by two girls I saw briefly out in public on the town—one walking in a huff down the street, the other a belligerent drunk close to tears, refusing any kind of help from kind strangers trying to figure out who she was, where her friends were, or how to get her home safely. Life can knock you down, but being bitter about yesterday and what people in your past may have done that hurt you is no way to go through living and interacting today. Everyone involved in this heard something different in how to approach it musically, and put their stamp on it as a result. Somehow we all met in the middle, no one compromised, and everybody felt good about the end result (or at least told me that). Positive outlook and energy sets up the last song on the album.

Angel From The Lonely Coast
The finale. Sam Kinninger returns to guest on sax again, bringing what I heard in my head to vivid, aching life through a horn and a mic set up in front of it. A song touching on the rough underbelly of the Rust Belt—unemployment, heroin, fading neighborhoods--and a shaded biography of a few people I knew in the middle of it. Reflecting on my hope that these people can better their life and break free of their cycle, while noting the quiet bravery and heroism of people living honestly and strongly through an atmosphere like this. Conceived as being my sound meeting up with a Stax/Motown vein, this one slowly developed and was built from the ground up, right down to the flow of the arrangement from the song's start. I'm not sure if everyone knew what I was going for initially, but everyone had the courage to trust me and let me lead them to….wherever it was, while turning in a lot of the best playing I'd ever heard them do at once. Probably the most adventurous song I've recorded so far, there was no place but the end of the tracklist for this one. The undercurrents of breaking free and breaking out through much of Take The Risk seem to come to a resolution here, so from the moment it was recorded, I couldn't see another track ending the album.

Bryan Howell’s Take the Risk drops on August 5th. You can pick up a copy HERE, and check out the lead single, “Your Saturday Night” HERE.

1 comment:

  1. I'm so impressed by Bryan's very thoughtful explanations of the ideas and observations of each album track. It really shows his dedication to, and deep understanding of, his music.