Sunday, 24 June 2012

Standing At The Sky's Edge by Richard Hawley Review

Richard Hawley
Standing at the Sky's Edge

Standing at the Sky's Edge is Hawley's seventh studio album to date, and with it he leaves behind his legacy of croonerisms and softer instrumentation in exchange for a sonic boom laden, guitar heavy wall-of-sound, all the while further showcasing his astounding ability for penning a good tune.

Hawley's back catalogue of work spans right back to the early '90s as guitarist for britpop group Longpigs and as one-time string slinger for Pulp which then led to a slew of session work spawning a portfolio of work for acts as varied and established as Nancy Sinatra, Elbow, Shirley Bassey, Hank Marvin and, erm, All Saints (Hawley played guitar on their bizarre cover of Red Hot Chilli Pepper's adage to heroin addiction Under The Bridge). All the while RH was working on his own material, consistently putting out a series of well received solo records, but it wasn't until 2005 album Coles Corner was released that Hawley began to garner some well deserved attention in the form of a Mercury Music Prize nomination, eventually losing out to fellow Sheffield band Arctic Monkeys' debut (upon receiving the award 'Monkeys frontman Alex Turner famously exclaimed "Someone call 999, Richard Hawley's been robbed!"). Since then Hawley has followed up Coles Corner with a series of critically acclaimed albums establishing himself as one of the country's finest singer/songwriters.

Renowned for adopting the stylistic sensibilities of the crooners of old, with a healthy doff of the cap to rock 'n' roll, rockabilly and the sweeping strings and twanging baritone guitar of Ennio Moricone, Standing at the Sky's Edge manages to break away effortlessly from what we've come to expect from Hawley, yet somehow retains an indefinable essence of all of those albums that came before it. The first thing that jumps out is the over abundance of guitar on this record. On previous output Hawley's guitar work has served as an accompaniment to his incomparable voice, often playing second fiddle (no pun intended) to those sweeping strings and delicate piano lines, but this time around the amps are bigger, the solos are longer and more often than not the fuzz pedals don't have an off switch. This is most appropriately apparent on album opener She Brings The Sunlight. Opening with ambient guitar noodling and the distant vibrato of Eastern inflected strings the mood is quickly shattered by a monolithic, gonad kicking guitar smash. Upon first listening, these juggernaut like open chords put me in mind of one band: Oasis. Thankfully after repeated listens my mind has been put to rest in the knowledge that although not a million miles away from the horrifically prolific output of THAT band, those Mancunian f*ckwits could never sound THIS GOOD. From this point on, it's quickly evident that these comparisons are immediately redundant.

The album's title track is a blues indebted slow burner, that lumbers it's heavy footed way along to find more of those huge guitars Hawley's been hiding away, all the while channeling the ghost of Johnny Cash in his understated vocal. Time Will Bring You Winter recalls the psychedelic production that made it's way back into favour in the early-‘90s. Shimmering effects laden guitars? Check. Vocal echo? Check? Harmony heavy chorus? All present and correct, and pretty damn good too. The effects spill over into the first upbeat foot stomper on this record, Down In The Woods, guitars ablaze with Hawley proclaiming "Won't you follow me down? Down into the woods. Won't you follow me down? Come back feeling good."

Hawley's balladry shows it's face once again on Seek It, his dry northern wit showing through in his lyrics: "I had a dream and you were in it, we got naked, can't remember what happened next. It was weird." whilst a minimal electronic beat and guitar effects carry the whole thing along creating a warm cocoon of six-stringed goodness. Similarly Don't Stare At The Sun keeps things easy going, chronicling a day out flying kites with his son whilst, upon Hawley's own admission at a recent gig, still pretty stoned.

The Wood Collier's Grave recalls some of Chris Isaak's more downbeat moments from his 1989 album Heart Shaped World with it's heady, reverb soaked vocal and ‘50s tremolo guitar. Leave Your Body Behind You is the album's first single and the fuzz boxes are back on as Hawley and co rip through a shuffled, descending riff culminating in a tangled mess of feedback, reversed guitars, and dying synths. Album closer, Before, almost predictably drops right back down again, to a sparse arrangement centering around Hawley's vocal until the three minute mark when it all rips loose again, exploring every avenue ventured down on the record so far and cramming it into a loud, abrasive, psychedelic meandering breakdown, slowly fizzling out to allow Hawley's vocal some focus one last time. The album quietly leaves us as it started, with the quiet whisper of fingers on guitar strings and thankfully a resounding feeling of resolution.

With Standing At The Sky's Edge, Richard Hawley has proven that he can turn his hand to pretty much anything stylistically and still manage to walk away sounding like no-one else. Placing this record alongside his previous long player, the easy-listening Truelove's Gutter, seems from the outset as though they are the products of two alarmingly different souls, and perhaps that is what is so brilliant and refreshing about this latest offering of Hawley's output. Rather than resting on his laurels, Hawley continues to evolve as a writer, a performer and as an artist at a time when the majority of bands either rely on the success of an established sound, or merely rehash what happens to be currently popular, which is a depressing state to be in. So, with that in mind, be thankful there are still troubadours out there like Richard Hawley.

Harry Rhodes

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