Danielle Howle | Theater Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

Danielle Howle 

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In the late 80s and early 90s, Danielle Howle sang in the South Carolina band Lay Quiet Awhile, which counted artists as disparate as the Indigo Girls and Fugazi among its fans--the group's sole album, produced by Fugazi engineer Don Zientara, came out on Amy Ray's Daemon label. Though Howle's music has since moved away from that hybrid of punk and folk (both solo and with her current backing band, the Tantrums, she delivers relatively restrained fare), her lyrics are as abrasive and nonlinear as ever. She can use words the way free improvisers use tones, sometimes abandoning not just story but syntax; her constricted but resonant alto is also pitched slightly flat, which adds an unsettling edge to her already challenging writing. On her latest CD, 1999's Catalog (Kill Rock Stars), her creations include caustic relationship songs like "Still in Love With You" ("Love feels like an anvil / That I think I've swallowed whole") and "Laughter in Your Head," which she sets to a lilting, disarming melody, setting you up to be flattened by her lyrics: "Everything that I want / Is laughter in your head....Are you such a hater / Breaking all you bring." Even "Willow in the Chair," which at first seems like a straightforward portrait of an elderly woman in a rocking chair, dissolves into surrealism ("She has made such / Tiny cradles watch / He has made such / Tiny coffins watch"). Occasionally, as in "From the Tops of Trees," Howle approximates a narrative--in this case a childhood reminiscence--but she tends to prefer incongruity, holding out the lure of a resolution that never comes. On the album's closer, "Lullabye," she sings in her most abrasive voice ("Lullaby it gets replaced / With painful bones and shitty breaks") as the melody ascends the fretboard into dissonance--some CDs are meant to be played over and over, but Howle seems to want hers to leave people too drained to listen to even one more song. This show is part of Ladyfest Midwest (see sidebar). Friday, August 17, 7:30 PM, Old Town School of Folk Music, 4544 N. Lincoln; 773-728-6000.

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