Danielle Howle's voice grabs your heart, and her songs squeeze it until it bursts. When the singer-songwriter performs live, she regularly slips into short, unlikely comedy routines about wacky subjects like fishing, trendy pants, holidays with her family and something she calls "butt shifts." But on "Catalog," Howles first solo studio album, theres no such levity to cushion her blows.
Howle, who is from Columbia, S.C., plays acoustic guitar and accompanies her picking with a voice laced with elements of Ani DiFranco's raw passion and Patsy Cline's melodicism. Her songs punch so hard because theyre often about the universal experience of being alone -- alone after a loved ones death, alone after a lover leaves, alone in your own little world. Howle doesn't seem to mind being alone, at least part of the time. In "From the Tops of Trees," a song about her childhood practice of climbing trees to watch the goings-on below, she sings, "I was not a social person/But I never missed a thing." But on the subject of emotional alienation, she's less confident. On "Still in Love With You," a song about being wronged in a relationship, she's "the doll with the flaw."
Howle started singing with the rootsy pop band Lay Quiet Awhile, which released the small but critically appreciated "Delicate Wire" in 1993. Since leaving that group and recording her first solo single, "Frog" (1994), she has released the 1994 live album "Live at McKissick Museum" (playing the kooky storyteller) and two records with her rock band, the Tantrums. The almost constant lonely feeling on "Catalog" makes the new effort her most focused release yet. Indie rockers Jenny Toomey (Tsunami) and Dan Littleton and Elizabeth Mitchell (Ida) add some unobtrusive contributions, but most of the record is just Howle, her simple, comforting guitar rhythms and a harmonica. That leaves her voice -- the antithesis of some wispy, feathery folk singer coo -- to provide most of the theatrics. She lets her Southern drawl growl and stretches it out until she's almost yodeling. In the course of just one track, "Old," she howls, she squawks, she purrs sweet mmms and she pulls off a desperate-sounding a cappella plea.
A 1996 spread in Interview magazine pictured Howle decked out in an Armani dress with upswept hair and mascaraed eyes. The polish seemed out of place: She looks much more comfortable in the photo on the back of her 1997 album "Do a Two Sable," drinking beer with her buddies in a T-shirt and cut-off jeans. Although "Catalog" is a more controlled studio record, it offers a more distilled version of Howle than even the live record, a portrait of her alone in what sounds like her natural element -- no apologies, no distractions. Not even any butt shifts.