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Songs About a Sick Boy

Quieting Syrup

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Album Review

Chicago-based musician Stephen Howard may be the epitome of the team player, and not just because he has a long history of band affiliations including Pinebender, Denali, Ambulette, and Mississippi Heat. Although his publicist promotes this album as a Howard solo record called Quieting Syrup, the disc itself gives the impression that "Quieting Syrup" is the artist name and that the title of the album is actually Songs About a Sick Boy. In fact, Howard's name doesn't appear anywhere in the packaging; in the album credits, "the kid" is credited with "vox, guitar, bass, keyboard." Maybe this is an example of Howard's self-effacing attitude, but maybe it also reflects the challenge of selling a concept album, written over a period of many years and recorded in the winter of 2003-2004, but not released until 2009, about the subject of serious illness, the illness of the singer/songwriter himself. That's simply not a subject much treated in popular music, and it may be hard to get a handle on how to market it. Then again, the songs are not so much "about" a sick boy as written from the point of view of a sick boy. Howard's first-person narrator is speaking from within the experience of illness. He's not giving us his diagnosis in these songs, he's telling us how it feels. He does so with a winsome high tenor voice mixed down into medium-tempo rock tracks that recall the Velvet Underground in its calmer moments. Actually, the closest equivalents to this record are similarly reflective efforts such as Lou Reed's Berlin and Neil Young's Tonight's the Night. And it has some of the same themes. For example, Howard contemplates suicide in "Winter of Our Discontent" (the theme of Berlin), and there is so much discussion of drug-taking ("These little white pills just too hard to score," he laments in the opening track, "Passwords to a Fort Full of Pills") and self-medicating (the last song is called, "The Answer Lies in Drinking") that a casual listen to the album might suggest is really about addiction (the theme of Tonight's the Night). Only a slightly more careful listen, however, confirms that this is the story of a sick and worried boy in a hospital bed. "This IV in my arm/Is causing some alarm," he notes in "Night Nurse Calls," and his depression is caused both by his medical experiences themselves ("How much worse can it get?," he asks in "Goin' for the Gold") and the seriousness of his condition ("I'm scared that everything might end," he admits in "So This Is Dying"). The result is a haunting collection of songs that anyone who has been seriously ill, or known someone who was, will be able to identify with.

Songs About a Sick Boy, Quieting Syrup
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