All Grown Up and Still Twangy

I (Heart) Britney Spears (ear X-tacy)
Heidi Howe

By Kevin Gibson

Louisville singer-songwriter Heidi Howe has gone in all sorts of directions since her first two releases, Nature of My Wrongs and A Real Piece of Work. She has delved into children's music, spiritual music and environmental awareness in her subsequent releases and has drawn quite a bit of praise for her efforts.

Her new release, I (Heart) Britney Spears, sees Howe returning to her early days of simply presenting songs about heartbreak and the foibles of society, except this time she does it without any help. Whereas in the past Tim Krekel and other guests have joined her in the studio to create lush, layered productions, this 13-song set is just little Heidi and her big red guitar. It's spare and charming, with Howe's uber-twangy vocals out front and center, no holds barred.

And her voice is the most apparent feature that sets Howe apart from other singer-songwriters. There's not a more distinctive, country-fried, fresh-from-the-Kentucky-hills voice in all of music. Seriously, Howe's voice makes Dolly Parton sound like a city slicker. (I hear some people say they don't like the shrill twang in her voice - me, I loved it from the first time I heard it.)

But my favorite aspect of Howe's music has always been her sense of humor. "If I Were a Man," from the aforementioned Work, is just fall-down funny while still being poignant. I (Heart) Britney Spears is populated with a few re-recorded retreads, but offers up a collection of new songs that only Howe could have written - and which seem to illustrate where she is right now as a person. Howe has always worn her heart on her guitar strap and that's exactly what she does with endearing aplomb on I (Heart) Britney Spears.

The album leads off with the title track, which is not an ode to or direct bashing of Spears but rather Howe's proclamation that she wants to be the kind of person who can love everyone equally, whether she thinks they are "an angel or a pain in the butt." The point here is that if she can legitimately say she loves Britney Spears, well, she can believe she's the kind of person she wants to be.

Among the many highlights here is "Down in Malibu," which is about the unrealistic expectations placed on females to, well, look just like a Barbie doll and the conflicting messages young girls receive while growing up. "My grandma told me/Girl, be anything you want to be/Then she gave me a doll that looked just like a beauty queen/She had pretty little pointy feet/And huge, perfect ... hair/You just knew a girl like Barbie don't own backup underwear."

"Everything But You" is disarming with its humorous look at forgetfulness mixed with the subplot of longing. And "With Every Kiss" is almost the anti-Heidi Howe song - Howe has been quoted as saying that heartbreak is her greatest motivator to write. She is now married and is a mother and this song pays homage to her newfound, er, lack of motivation: "With every kiss/You suck the song right out of me/ ... My hard times have fallen on hard times."

She also turns in some sweetly sincere tunes like "Broke Back" (which apparently is a tribute to the film "Brokeback Mountain"), "The Last Thing," "Made in Korea (Song for Stinky Pete)" (which is about her son) and "All I Need," and also revisits classics from past albums such as the hilarious "Ex's Baggage" and the incredibly endearing and emotive "Haven't Met You Yet."

Based on the presentation and the lyrics here, one gets the feeling that Howe, while still very much a musician (she still hosts open-mic nights and plays often), sees herself more as mom and wife now than songwriter - and she seems damn happy about it. Instead of burdening herself with the expense and time commitment of a full-band studio album, Howe seems to be saying, "Here it is; this is just me."

Maybe she doesn't have as much time or money to sink into her recordings at the moment, but one thing marriage and motherhood has done is give Howe a whole new songwriting avenue to explore. She proves with this collection that she hasn't lost a step.

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