Hawksley Workman has gotten a fair bit of acclaim over the last decade, including some Juno success. Even with his music getting into some TV soundtracks, Workman’s albums aren’t exactly getting endcap space and are usually best sought as imports. With this reissue of 1999’s debut album For Him and the Girls, Workman (Ryan Corrigan) finally gets the record a proper US release, just in time to help push (or tag along with) new albums Meat and Milk. While it’s a strong debut, it also suffers from some first-album problems, but not so much that it isn’t worth a visit.
All indie rock (and almost entirely written, performed, and produced by Workman), but part yodel, part prayer, part cry, and part glam, the album never settles into exactly what it is. That sort of scattershot approach reveals an artist who’s flexible, but who hasn’t yet figured out how to make an album. Fortunately each individual performance is strong enough to carry the work as a whole, but it’s a little too long and too shifty to fully succeed.
The album opens wonderfully, with noise turning to yodel in “Maniacs”, a song propelled by its tom-heavy drumming and lyrics turning from nonsense into vaguely political suggestiveness. The next track, “No Sissies”, carries a steady pop groove with a catchy and comical chorus (perhaps a Canadian answer to “No Scrubs”, or at least a pleasant deferment). Over the next few songs, Workman, showing a leaning for the stage (particularly one in a smoky hall), builds a nice little first half of an album. The problem is that we’re not halfway through, and then the album drops off over the remaining portion.
“Tarantulove” and “Sweet Hallelujah” make for a strange pair, but their juxtaposition draws out musical and thematic tensions, and at this point the disc is still coherent. It’s with “Don’t Be Crushed” that the wheels start to come off. The slow lull of the song kills the momentum, and the calm encouragement doesn’t work, partly due to clunky lines like “Thank god you’re timeless / ‘Cause my watch got stolen” and partly due to the usually strong vocalist seemingly trying to use some pitch issues as an aesthetic element.
For Him and the Girls never fully recovers, but some quality music hides out on the back half. “All of Us Kids” builds from a calm drum part into a chorus that’s repressing its epic side. It’s a nice piece of artistry, especially coupled with the violent imagery, and its one of the tracks with the most staying power. “Paper Shoes”, while a bit artlessly graphic, uses a music hall version of slink to make a comical dancing boast and musical liberation. Both singing and dancing are “about sexual confidence”, and and Workman plays with his song in a way that’s always one step safe of a Flight of the Conchords moment (as with “I should have been a girl with the way I can dance / My moves are amazing”). For all its humor, though, the song remains half-seduction, keeping the listener off balance.
Given the quality of much of this album, it’s a shame that For Him and the Girls doesn’t quite hang together. Workman would put together a stellar disc just two years later with (Last Night We Were) The Delicious Wolves. All the ingredients for that sort of success are here on For Him and the Girls, but it still has the taste of a first try.