“Mmmm, Romantic”, purred this music critic’s favourite Three Monkeys writer, la Rita Balla, when I played her tracks from Richard Hawley’s new album Cole’s Corner. And it is indeed that. Luscious songs, down at heel lyrics, and a voice that has the velvet texture of Johnny Cash’s larynx coated in creamy Guinness. And all from a Yorkshire lad who’s finally reached the point where he’s not “worried about being cool”.
Hawley is a music industry veteran, who first came to prominence as guitarist in Sheffield band The Longpigs. Since their demise he’s played with a mind-boggling amount of different artists including All Saints (he played guitar on the Nellee Hopper produced Under the Bridge), Perry Farrell of Jane’s Addiction (who knows a guitarist when he hears one), Finlay Quaye, and Baxter Dury. Not to mention his regular stints as guitarist with fellow Sheffielders Pulp.
The startling thing then about his solo work (this is his third solo album proper, the first two being Late Night Final, and Lowedges) is his voice. Akin to singers like Mark Lannegan, Mr Cash, and even Morrissey (echoes of whom can be heard in Hawley’s voice), his voice sounds like an instrument, and one with which he’s a virtuoso player. It seems like a crime that he’s been hiding behind a guitar for so long.
The album takes its name from a Sheffield Landmark, Coles Corner, named after a shop that has long since gone, remaining only as a folk memory. The lyrical signposts are all from Northern England, Sheffield place names, bars protecting love lorn romantics from the elements, rain and last orders. The musical hooks are resolutely American, from a different era with lush strings (in reality only on three songs, but they seem to leak onto the full album), peddle steel guitar, and some wonderful bass playing courtesy of Colin Eliot.
The danger is always that retro sounding music will end up being mere pastiche. Whether it’s on the country tinged I Sleep Alone and Wading through the Water, or the sparse first single The Ocean, the songs never sound less than authentic. This is no Kravitz-style retro-snatch.
The closing track is a gentle instrumental, Last Orders, which could well be from an ethereal film soundtrack. Forget the rules – this solo star, with a voice that melts, ends with a gentle piano based piece.Few albums have been such a pleasure this year, precisely because few artists have been so brave/carefree. By following his own nostalgia, he’s created a record with timeless tunes.