After RPM issued Technicolour Biography, a collection of incomplete demos intended for John Howard's follow-up to his 1975 debut, Kid in a Big World, it seemed like the John Howard vaults were emptied out. As it turned out, that's not quite the case. After CBS rejected the Technicolour Biography material for not being commercial enough, Howard wrote a brand-new set of songs in a little over a month, and then headed into the studio with a commercially savvy producer endorsed by CBS: Biddu, the man who helmed Carl Douglas' camp disco classic, "Kung Fu Fighting." On paper this didn't seem like an ideal match, but the label wanted Howard to have a disco hit, and Biddu seemed to be the producer to deliver on this promise. Such careful plans have a way of unraveling, and CBS' scheming backfired. Howard and Biddu had known each other for a few years prior to recording the album that wound up as Can You Hear Me OK?, and Biddu had wanted to record the singer/songwriter for years. When they teamed for this particular project, they had commercial success on their mind, but it didn't take the shape of what the label had been thinking. Howard wrote a set of a bright, cheerful pop tunes and love songs, sanding down many of the eccentricities that marked Kid in a Big World and Technicolour Biography, yet retaining his exceptional sense of songcraft and very British sense of theatricality. It was a deliberately mass-market spin on his style, and Biddu followed Howard's lead, giving it a lush, sleek sound that falls halfway between mid-period Wings and Al Stewart's Time Passages. It's a smoother album than Kid in a Big World, traveling a little bit closer to the middle of the road and lacking the left turns and detours that make that record such a rich experience, but that doesn't mean Can You Hear Me OK? isn't a rewarding listen; Howard is still an immensely gifted pop craftsman, and the fact that he could streamline his work so successfully on this album is just further testament to that. Can You Hear Me OK? does seem like it could have been a soft rock hit in 1975/1976, but after its excellent first single, "I Got My Lady," failed to make an impression, CBS pulled the album from release, and it sat on the shelves until RPM released it in 2005, in the wake of the success of their previous Howard reissues. It was a long wait, but anybody who found Kid in a Big World an enchanting listen will likely love this as well.
RPM filled out the CD of Can You Hear Me OK? with four bonus tracks that comprise the entirety of John Howard's two singles recorded with a pre-Buggles Trevor Horn. Ironically enough, these two singles are exactly what CBS was looking for when they brought Biddu in to produce Howard: relentlessly bouncy, catchy pop-disco numbers. Indeed, the first of these, "I Can Breathe Again," was written in the style of Tina Charles, a singer who rose to success thanks to her Biddu-produced singles. The flip, a ballad cleverly titled "You Take My Breath Away," is a solid but very slick soft rock tune, while the second Horn-produced single, "Don't Shine Your Light," is a thumping piece of infectious Eurotrash dance-pop that was a finalist for England's entry into the Eurovision contest in 1978. While these four cuts are more dated than anything on the proper Can You Hear Me OK? package, they're still a lot of fun, and proof that Howard's talent was flexible enough to write good pop tunes in any style. He just never had the lucky break to give him a genuine hit, but his music has aged remarkably well, and any serious collector of '70s pop music -- well, any collector with a taste for obscure but mainstream sounds -- will find this CD nearly as lovable as his debut. [RPM's CD also includes a video track with a promotional film for "I Got My Lady" and very entertaining liner notes from Howard himself.] ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine