What a Beautiful Place
atherine Howe is a young, beautiful voice trapped inside a young, beautiful body. She is your mother, circa 1970: in a flower dress, in a field, a cross around her a neck, an umbrella on her shoulder; I have never felt worse spilling coffee on a CD booklet. Her gestures are simple—“Prologue,” “Interlude,” and “Epilogue” function as is on her plainly titled debut What a Beautiful Place—but she sings amongst world-class orchestras and a prodigious producer. She was, simply, a naïve 20-year-old whose debut album was derailed by things—label trouble and obscurity—that have very little to do with being 20 years old and beautiful.
Reared in drama school, Howe lucked into a recording deal with the soon-to-be defunct CBS offshoot Reflection Records in 1968. Beautiful Place was recorded by multi-instrumentalist producer Bobby Scott, by all counts a deeply unmotivated, massively talented sumuvabitch. Something clicked, though, and Scott put his nose to the grindstone on Beautiful Place, probably not unlike the way you hustle a little harder in gym class when the girls are watching. Roping in a group of accomplished session men, Scott paired Howe’s lilting alto with tender orchestral accompaniments, sketching a fairy tale around the damsel.
The arrangements, as a result, sound bigger and warmer than, say, Bryter Lyter. An overwhelmingly “pretty” record, Beautiful Place sets up shop dangerously close to schmaltz—one imagines that the public appetite for flutes and xylophones in 1970 was significantly larger than it is now. Only on the decidedly uptempo title track and the haunted “It’s Not Likely” does Scott take a shot at anything that couldn’t be described as serene or calming.
Howe navigates the terrain admirably, taking big, long breaths and exhaling long, slow countryside. She carves a place for her narrow frame inside Scott’s regal productions, pausing as flutes and string sections echo her sentimentalisms or galloping alongside strident piano and too-big drums.
The lyrics, because Howe is young and singing on a 1970s British pastoral folk album, are predictably lacking, of real interest only to those heavily invested in rococo artwork and Lisa Frank trapper keepers. The song titles speak for themselves: “On a Misty Morning,” “The Innocence of a Child,” and “It Comes With the Breeze” all contribute to the soppy atmosphere, and please believe that context lends little gravity to Howe’s romanticizing.
Fortunately, it would take mountains of glib to ruin songs like “Up North” or “My Child,” glibness that the genuinely emotional Howe simply does not posses. On “Words Through a Locked Door,” she boldly claims that, “My heart’s in a hundred places / And part of it’s under a tree,” her voice practically forcing empathy, and her ornate, accomplished vision of folk music seems complete.
Beautiful Place will probably never be confused with a truly great album. Neither does it seem particularly revelatory: pastoral soundscape aside, Howe is far removed from the recent run of ‘70s feminine folk revivals—Vashti Bunyan, Judee Sill, Numero Group’s own Ladies from the Canyon comp—and turns out a better bookend for Norah Jones than for Joanna Newsom. Howe recovered from Beautiful Place’s flop, releasing several albums throughout the ‘70s and one in 2005. The spirited, youthful What a Beautiful Place, however, remains of a time—for better and for worse.