Tuesday, May 08, 2012

There's one in every town

In most municipalities you will find, rolling a ciggie outside a pub, an unwavering and authentic throwback, a walking museum and lifestyle rolled into one. "White face, black shirt/White socks, black shoes", as Ian Dury sang in his tribute to Gene Vincent - "There's one in every town".

Sheffield has one. His name is Richard Hawley. Amid the South Yorkshire city's other music luminaries - Joe Cocker, ABC, Heaven 17, Def Leppard, Human League, Arctic Monkeys and Pulp - Hawley stands out like a Wednesday shirt in the home end of Bramall Lane, residing in a unique niche of British pop music.

Over several acclaimed albums like Lady's Bridge and the ethereal Truelove's Guitar - named after parts of the Steel City - the bequiffed Hawley has attached his distinctively swoonsome 50s croon to melodic guitar rock, rockabilly, introspective country ballads and sweeping, strings-ahoy epics.

RIchard Hawley is blessed with a voice of sumptuous timbre, evocative of Jim Reeves, Johnny Cash and Matt Munro in its ease, and resonant of Morrissey, Nick Cave and Ian McCulloch in its bass. Add a prodigious family talent for music and, in his specific case, a talent for guitar (which has earned Hawley work with his friend and fellow Sheffielder, Jarvis Cocker, as well as a spot in the Pulp touring band, an appearance on Robbie Williams' debut solo album and the solo on All Saints' cover of Under The Bridge - plus diverse collaborations with Elbow, Nancy Sinatra, Paul Weller, and even guitarist-├╝ber-alles, Hank Marvin.

In spite of - or despite of - he remains something of an enigma, comfortable in his 'appy-to-be-in-the-corner-with-me-Guinness demeanor, extolling the melodic simplicity of the musical era his vocal talent was clearly designed to indulge. Don't, however, be mistaken into thinking the retro image - greased-back hair and vintage guitars - is the affectation of pastiche, of a tribute act lacking the desire to go the whole hog in a sequined jumpsuit.

"I'm a cheesy fucker," he told Uncut more than ten years ago. "All those influences [Reeves, Cash, etc]  are just in there. It's not that I'm against aggression and fast beats, but I'm convinced that when you reveal a more vulnerable side, it takes more bravery than shouting."

Ten years on, Hawley is still not shouting, but his latest - Standing By The Sky's Edge - finds the 45-year-old shaking a fist at a troubled world, and he does so with an album that may come as a shock to a fan base used to the gently-tempered ballads of past releases.

From the beginning, Standing By The Sky's Edge is an unexpectedly energetic explosion of psychedelia, huge power chords and reverb so cavernous it only stops when it meets Dante's ice cream van somewhere near the bottom. Wherever that might be.

She Brings The Sunlight, with it's Beatley opening and Eastern flavor, contains the darkly feelgood soundstage of a Gallagher festival pleaser, pushing its vocal into the back line amplification where it waits for a couple of trippy guitar solos to kick in mid-way through.

Clearly impressed with what you can do with echo and feedback, Standing At The Sky's Edge's title track starts like a Morricone score, half expecting Jon Bon Jovi to start singing "I'm wanted dead or alive". Such a song title might suggest a huge vista for contemplating life, Hawley's own version of Grand Canyon (Lawrence Kasdan's saccharine tale of Los Angelinos trying to discover their bigger purpose in front of the superlative scale of the Arizonan wonder). But no. Instead it is an uncompromising reflection of urban blight, set in yet another Sheffield location (Skye Edge), a notorious district where so many and so much has been denied.

Time Will Bring You Winter takes the tone of Standing At The Sky's Edge into even more unlit territory, Hawley's effect-filtered voice pushing itself up out of another enormous dollop of distorted, reverb-treated guitars before Down In The Woods chugs away with a further humungous saga of thundering bass and guitar amps turned up way past 11 and already on their way to 20.

After the aural assault of the first four songs Hawley treads a gentler path with Seek It, a quirkily beautiful love song built over a strangely familiar jangly guitar motif. Hawley would probably hate to be compared to Chris Isaak, but Seek It highlights just how similar the two singers are, and not because of a shared love of hair product and Gretsch semi-acoustics. Isaak may be more Hollywood, and Hawley more Hollyoaks, but their enjoyably nourish sound befits both a David Lynch soundtrack and a northern bedsit in equal measure.

From such gentility, Hawley returns with another five-minute epic, Don't Stare At The Sun. Commencing with a gently airy shuffle, and gradually building to a crescendo redolent of John Barry, the song is, however, about nothing more dramatic than Hawley taking his son to nearby fields to fly a kite. It's dark tonality, though, hints at something else, a warning, perhaps, that the innocence of childhood is fast becoming too fragile in today's world.

Standing At Sky's Edge has dark, it has shade, and it has light. Breathtaking and then surprising by turns, at times it drags you by the scruff of the neck while at others it leads you by the hand.

There are also times when you're just not so sure what it's doing, which is just fine. That is Hawley's gift, but beware - the look doesn't paint the complete picture of what Sheffield's very own Gene Vincent is about.

One thing is so - Standing At Sky's Edge may just be 56 of the most invigorating musical minutes you will enjoy this year. Simply, a stunning record.

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