Richard Hawley
Lady’s Bridge
2007
B+



i moved house the other day, and as I was packing I stumbled across an old compilation CD featuring a track by Richard Hawley. It’s a disarmingly simple tune called “Coming Home,” packed with roots music lyrical clichés; stations, rivers, rocking chairs, and death. Taken from his eponymous debut mini-album, released in 2001, way back when it was the first Richard Hawley song I’d heard. It struck me even then that it shouldn’t be so effective, but six years down the line, Hawley is still doing it. Like Neil Young, he has the ability to write lullaby melodies and non-specific lyrics that sound fresher than they have any right to, as well as packing a hefty emotional punch.

Lady’s Bridge is Hawley’s fifth album; the follow-up to the acclaimed Coles Corner, which didn’t quite catapult him to stardom, but did raise his profile considerably thanks to a hefty slice of Mercury-Nomination publicity. Expertly arranged and produced, Coles Corner was a gorgeous record which quietly announced itself as something akin to an instant classic. If it had a weakness it was an abundance of merely ‘good’ songs; but these somehow connected with the standout tracks, creating a lovely flow to the record as a whole.

A few months ago Hawley promised that his next record would be “quite a big change” and suggested that he’d “discovered tempo.’ I doubt anyone will be surprised that his musical reference points are largely unchanged, though; for anyone not paying attention thus far, think crooners and country, Sun Records and Sinatra, a hint of rockabilly… The only obvious nod to anything recorded after the mid-1960s is a clear affection for the Velvet Underground. Lady’s Bridge does boast a handful of faster songs though, and in places Hawley’s vision is perhaps grander than it has previously been.

Lady’s Bridge was written as Richard Hawley’s father was dying. It’s difficult to say how much the album was informed by this slow tragedy, though, as Hawley’s default settings are “reflective” and “melancholic” in any case. Opener “Valentine” begins intimately with Hawley’s pipes on impervious form, but a minute or so in a Spector-esque swoop takes the song somewhere else entirely. For my money, it’s a misstep; the arrangement lacks the subtlety that characterizes Hawley’s best work, and the drum sound is, to put it politely, not the most sympathetic you’ll ever hear.

First single “Tonight the Streets Are Ours” makes a similar, though less epic, pitch at “pop,” if not necessarily the mainstream, and with greater success; its shimmering strings (and voices) bring to mind various ‘60s girl-groups. With gruffer vocals, of course. The other more up-tempo tracks, “Serious” and the brilliantly titled “I’m Looking for Someone to Find Me,” are pleasant enough, but not outstanding. All of these songs also somehow seem slicker; thankfully the intrusive drum sound of “Valentine” doesn’t return, but the more upbeat tunes simply don’t sound as good, to my ear anyway. Perhaps it’s unsurprising that the softer songs should often be the stronger ones; Hawley, in his own words, is as “soft as a bag of tits.’

With most of the quicker songs out of the way early on, things improve significantly. The slower tempo and more somber mood of “Lady Solitude” play more closely to Hawley’s strengths. On “Roll River Roll” sparse piano and lushly understated strings, frame his warm baritone delightfully. “Dark Road” is another highlight; expertly utilizing the old Hank Williams trick of easing the listener into a miserable song by lending its rhythm a playful bounce, while “The Sea Calls” picks up the centerpiece mantle that “The Ocean” carried on Coles Corner, rolling and tumbling amidst giant waves of sound; simply put, it’s majestic.

Lady’s Bridge is sure to please existing fans and probably tease in a few newcomers, too. To state the obvious, it’s another strong record from a brilliant singer / songwriter, and, song for song, might actually be stronger than Coles Corner, although it doesn’t quiet come together to transcend the sum of its parts in the same way. It be’s that way sometimes.



Reviewed by: James McKean
Reviewed on: 2007-10-03
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