Richard Hawley has been on one hell of a run these last three or four years, but while his star is slowly starting to rise in the UK, in North America, few have noticed. After performing with Britpop group Longpigs during the mid-‘90s, touring as a second guitarist with his friends in Pulp, and making a living as a session musician, the veteran Sheffield musician has finally come into his own as a solo artist, emerging as one of the finest singer-songwriters in the UK today. Not unlike Canadian great Ron Sexsmith, Hawley has earned the respect of his peers in the business (Scott Walker, R.E.M., and Coldplay have all sung his praises), but has yet to make a serious dent in mainstream pop. Unlike Sexsmith, whose unique, warbling voice isn’t exactly what mass audiences are looking for, Hawley’s is a voice that is instantly engaging, exuding panache, maturity, and class every time he sings. His 2001 album Late Night Final made listeners’ collective jaws hit the floor, with both his languid guitar work and his stunning baritone vocals, hearkening back to the gentler strains of late ‘50s/early ‘60s rock ‘n’ roll. His 2003 follow-up Lowedges took that retro formula and improved upon it, creating a lush, warm, enveloping sound, and if that weren’t enough, his production work on A Girl Called Eddy’s 2004 debut full-length was so fantastic, so reminiscent of his own previous two albums, it might as well have been his record.
Whereas Hawley’s previous two albums dipped into the past while retaining an understated, adult contemporary feel, his latest release, Coles Corner, heads full-bore into the vintage sounds of five decades ago, back to the days when Roy Orbison, Eddie Cochrane, Gene Vincent, and Johnny Cash were all in their prime. It takes a certain flair for a modern-day artist to pull off such a retro sound, and Hawley’s complete lack of irony and bombast on this record makes it work. His songs may be melancholy, but they’re never melodramatic, making the music more soothing than gutwrenching. The smooth, sentimental title track, in less capable hands, could easily come off as smarmy and shallow, but when Hawley croons smoothly, “Maybe there’s someone waiting for me/ With a smile and a flower in her hair,” there’s a heartbreaking majesty to it, as listeners can picture Hawley meandering through the busy Sheffield neighborhood the song is named after, the loneliest guy in the crowd. The song is perfectly underscored by some gorgeous orchestration, highlighted by a sumptuous strings melody that would make Scott Walker proud. “The Ocean” goes one step further in its Walker adoration, a five minute mini-epic which works the slow-burning formula Hawley perfected on Lowedges, an orchestra underscoring a mellow band performance, the music effortlessly bobbing along, but midway through, the waves suddenly come crashing in, the strings taking off toward the sky, Hawley’s voice building in power and emotion, before a beatific guitar solo kicks in. It’s breathtaking.
Retro ‘50s sounds abound on the entire record, and although Hawley’s guitar prowess is downplayed, his six-string talents inevitably surface. “Hotel Room” is the kind of pop waltz that Angelo Badalenti made a living at during the Twin Peaks years, only far less kitschy, bolstered by a spellbinding slide guitar solo. The gentle “Born Under a Bad Sign” sounds as if it were lifted from the Everly Brothers’ songbook, and the lilting strains of “Just Like the Rain” dares to mimic the early work of Johnny Cash (right down to the backing chorus of singers), aided greatly by the lithe, chiming layers of guitars that flit about in the background like fireflies. “Wait For Me” ventures into Roy Orbison territory (it’s impossible not to imagine Orbison’s singing this in his striking tenor), while the lazy, acoustic shuffle of “Wading Through the Water” is an uncanny re-creation of the classic Sun Studio sound. As a final coup de grace, on the loving “Who’s Going to Shoe Your Pretty Little Feet”, Hawley takes the traditional folk song made famous by Woody Guthrie, and gives it the latter-day Elvis treatment, with astonishing results.
It’s certainly not uncommon for contemporary artists to mine the past and successfully corner the ever-growing adult contemporary market, as Norah Jones and Michael Buble have proven, but none of those youngsters can match the style and grace with which Richard Hawley crafts his music. It’s achingly beautiful, disarmingly intimate, simply the best-kept secret in popular music today. Hawley might a couple years shy of 40, but he’s only just getting started.