Catherine Howe’s lush and breathtaking debut album What A Beautiful Place never even hit the shelves before Reflection Records went belly up in 1971. As a result, Howe was robbed of recognition, going on to a meager career in music before finally retiring to her hometown of Halifax, Nova Scotia. Now, 35 years later, the Numero Group has finally reissued a fully remastered version of Howe’s first album. Second chances are relatively nonexistent in the music industry, and when they do come along, it’s usually for good reason.
So why does a relative unknown’s debut record still need to be heard? As Beautiful Place‘s opening vibraphones chime their ascending arpeggios in “Prologue,” Howe’s trite-seeming title transforms into an appropriate label. Perhaps jazz great Ornette Coleman said it best: “Beauty is a rare thing.” And they don’t come any more rare than this.
Paired with American jazz pianist Bobby Scott, simple folk songs flourish within Scott’s sophisticated arrangements and lavish production. Even the London Symphony orchestra makes an appearance as bassoon, flute, flugelhorn and timpani flesh out the skeletons of song. While the arrangements are indeed intricate, they never get in the way of Howe’s enchantingly pure folk melodies. On “Up North,” Howe’s voice, channeling Karen Carpenter as much as Carole King, sails over a sea of instrumentation while Scott’s not-so-subtle bluesy piano lines make for a fine contrast.
Since many of the tracks are modeled in this fashion – sweeping instrumentation hidden underneath Howe’s whisper-soft vocals and Scott’s funky piano fills – the record occasionally teeters on redundancy. Thankfully, there’s enough emotional weight in songs like “What A Beautiful Place” to keep things interesting. The title track offers a strong vocal attack and the driving rhythm evokes Carole King’s “I Feel the Earth Move.” But the earth doesn’t move too far before Howe returns to her soft-spoken reflection on the following track “The Innocence Of a Child.”
The melancholy of “On A Misty Morning” is especially poignant. As strings and horn roll along as slowly and steadily as a thick fog, Howe’s voice is confident. Nevertheless, there is sadness undercutting Howe’s performance – as if she already knows the fate of the record.
It isn’t until the final track, however, that the listener fully grasps Howe’s dual nature – confident and tragic. In a thick Yorkshire accent, Howe speaks: “I have said what I have said. That is all. That is enough. The words are different when thought in red. And I don’t expect to pay for living and hiding in yellow fields.”
Howe isn’t making any apologies for her bold and honest record. Not to be mistaken as art for art’s sake, What A Beautiful Place is as adventurous in its production as it is comforting in its folk simplicity. The only real tragedy is that it’s taken 36 years for this record to finally be heard. The musical landscape Howe created in 1971 is as alive as it ever was and ready to be rediscovered.
What a Beautiful Place
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars