Richard Hawley Coles Corner Mute Records CDSTUMM251
It is a rare artistic alchemy that makes the commonplace epic, the familiar beautiful. Coles Corner, the title track to Richard Hawley's third solo album, has this transforming power; a luminous love letter to the urban humdrum, to a place, indeed, that no longer exists.
Coles Corner was a large department store in Hawley's hometown of Sheffield, a place of rendezvous for generations from the turn of the twentieth century on. In the press notes accompanying the album's release, Hawley explains: "Sheffield's couples, lovers, friends, mums and dads….would meet [there]. I've always found it quite a romantic notion --how many kids in Sheffield are knocking about as a result of meeting at Coles Corner? 'I'll meet you at Coles Corner…' People still say it, even though it hasn't existed for years. It only exists, really, in the ether." Hawley's 'romantic notion' leads him to memorialise not the place itself, but the idea of the place. This overtakes specificity, so that Sheffield itself becomes fairytale, dream, and failed romance. These images work because of the effectiveness of Hawley's musical setting and delivery. As the strings sweep in the opening bars, the listener is reminded of the lovelorn standards of the 1950s and 60s: Sinatra, Orbison, and Scott Walker. There is no pastiche or cliché here. Hawley sublimely recreates a bygone musical atmosphere and by doing so, he adds to it.
The romantic feel of the opening track lasts the duration of the record, with each song contributing its own story. Just Like The Rain is imbued with the same country sensibility that underpins Coles Corner, but it is melodic, guitar-led, and danceable. Wading Through The Waters Of My Time shows off Hawley's Johnny Cash-like phrasing and songcraft. The album's songs dovetail beautifully, with guitar following strings and quick following slow. Tonight is a slowly unfolding melodrama, while Who's Gonna Shoe Your Pretty Little Feet? is a delicately sung American folk-song. However, if the album as a whole is about the varieties of ways one loves and ceases to love, its centrepiece must be The Ocean, which washes away the memory-traces of lonely city streets. It has the feeling of an epiphany, with the layered instrumentation gathering, crashing and subsiding in waves. There is no atonality or jagged noise or inscrutable lyrics, but in his own way Hawley is stretching the limits of popular song, by refining that mode to an epic form, hitting a pitch of emotion so taut that it feels on the verge of collapse. With typical aptness, Hawley makes The Ocean flow into Born Under A Bad Sign, a rueful meditation on artistic navel-gazing. The bathos is perfectly observed.
Hawley's singing throughout the record is continually well-judged. His voice is deep and expressive, occasionally languorous, but always utterly sincere. He never shies away from saying what he means or from the honorific, whether in a song written for his wife, for a corner of his hometown, or as a tribute to the productions of Sun Records. This was the music that Hawley listened to as a kid learning the guitar, and it's still the music that he loves now. He has even acquired a rockabilly quiff.
Coles Corner taps the peculiarly English obsession with mid-century American music (country, early rock and roll, and jazz) and revitalises it. Each song has its own feel and unique grandeur, making the parochial the universal. This is exemplified by the magnificent final track Last Orders, an echoey, plaintive instrumental. Coles Corner shimmers and swells and finally fades, though not in the listener's imagination.--Michael Hallam
We are very pleased to welcome Michael Hallam to the Albion team. Michael is from Hertfordshire and brings to the magazine a background in academia and journalism. He is the author of Celebrity Consorts.--The Editor
David Gray Life in Slow Motion Atlantic 5046797662
Unlike David Gray's previous two albums, which he produced in his own home studio, this record features the talents of producer Marius de Vries, who has previously worked with artists including U2 and Madonna. The result of their collaboration is a full-fledged studio album, conceived as a soundscape with orchestral textures that is very different to Gray's former lo-fi sound. Although some may object that the added layers of music and sounds detract from his renowned 'white soul voice, the various elements create a harmonious unity, giving the music a new dimension. Some of the songs build up so much energy that you will soon find yourself tapping your feet and swaying along to their catchy rhythms.
The record has a number of high points. Alibi is a lovely start to the album, producing a tranquil feeling with a hint of sadness; the lyrical imagery and lush orchestration allow you to totally escape into Gray's creative world. Nos Da Caraid is infectiously rhythmic, with a hint of Coldplay's piano style and poetic sensibility. Slow Motion, a very powerful, slow-paced ballad, combines simple lyrics with heavy percussion. Finally, Hospital Food has a cheerful upbeat feel, although the lyrics tackle a melancholy subject: a relationship that has gone stale.
Life in Slow Motion is a big step forward for Gray as a songwriter and musician. This is David Gray at his best. For new listeners, it is a great introduction to his work, while the change of producer creates something fresh for old fans as well. --Corinne Brown
We are very pleased to welcome Corinne Brown to the Albion team. Corinne is from Bristol and brings to the magazine a background in professional photography. An example of her photographic work can be seen on our homepage. --The Editor
Folk and Acoustic Releases
Steve Tilston Of Many Hands ADA Recordings ADA106CD
A long-established singer-songwriter, Steve Tilston is an experienced and multi-skilled performer, with a strong voice and superb guitar style. His latest album is almost entirely traditional material, re-interpreted and handled with care and aplomb. From the classic Leaving of Liverpool, beautifully interpreted here, to the Tilston-adapted Willow Creek, this is a superb collection. Tilston is ably backed up by the likes of Martin Simpson, Nancy Kerr and James Fagan, and Chris Parkinson.
Spirogyra A Canterbury Tale Castle Music CMQDD 1258
Canterbury Acid Folk act Spirogyra (nothing to do with the jazz group of the same name) get the full anthology treatment here. This set includes their entire recorded output, three albums that have become cult classics over the years, and four previously-unreleased outtakes. The group was the brainchild of Martin Cockerham, and featured Barbara Gaskin's vocal talents, Julian Cusack (violins and keyboards), Steve Borill on bass, and Dave Mattacks deputising on drums. They created an astonishing universe of biting lyrics and complex folk music, producing a unique sound. This is a superb collection. If you like the Incredible String Band, Comus, or indeed psychedelic material like early Floyd, then you will love these rediscovered gems, another triumph for Sanctuary.
Kirsty McGee Two Birds Park records PRKCD85
Originally noted as the home of Steeleye Span, Park Records is rapidly becoming better known for its roster of superb female singer-songwriters like Rose Kemp, Abbie Lathe, Maddy Prior, and now, another name to add to the list, the superb Kirsty McGee. Her songs are written with apparent simplicity, but reveal themselves to be more complex, drawing the listener in with each and every listen. It's clear that McGee has matured as a songwriter and performer on this, her third album. From the lovely opener Thank You and the superb Alchemy to the brilliant Lazy Blue Eyes, this is a vibrant, beautiful album from a performer who is making her mark, and who, I've no doubt, will be around for a long time yet.
P J Wright Hedge of Sound Hedge of Sound Recordings HOSCD022
Described by myself in another magazine as the best guitarist in the world (a quote that PJ keeps above his desk, apparently!), P J Wright is also a long-term Steve Gibbons collaborator, Dylan Project guitarist, front-man for folk rockers Little Johnny England, and a phenomenal performer in his own right. This is demonstrated on Hedge of Sound, an amazing album. With a supporting cast including Dave Pegg, Ric Sanders, Anna Ryder, and Guy Fletcher, amongst others, it showcases P J's versatility. In the epic Lily of Barbary, the tunes Suite: Nether Bagwash and the blues-tinged Electric Railway and Electric Railway (Cheap Day Return), we hear an artist performing at his peak, enjoying the music and working with his mates. As a consequence, it is one of the best albums I've heard this year. This is one worth owning and returning to again and again.
The Eighteenth Day of May (Self-titled) Hannibal HNCD1469
This is an excellent debut. With the sublime vocals of Allison Brice and Richard Olson (also guitar) and the talents of mandolin player Ben Phillipson, viola player Alison Cotton, and rhythm section Mark Nicholas and Karl Sabino, the sound The Eighteenth Day of May produce creates some genuine shiver-down-the-spine moments, especially on pieces like Flowers of the Forest or their version of Bert Jansch's Deed I Do. Displaying a love of both the roots of English music and more contemporary sounds, this is the strongest folk crossover album since Shirley Collins and the Albion Country Band unleashed No Roses back in 1971.
Billy Mitchell The Devil's Ground Northumbria Anthology MWMCDSP70
Former Lindisfarne front man Billy Mitchell releases his new solo album as part of the Northumbria Anthology, which celebrates the heritage and history of his native Northumbria. The Devil's Ground finds Mitchell in fine form: his love for his native countryside shines through, as does his talent with lyrics and music. From the opening title track to The Bog Bank Disaster, Mitchell is a contemporary songwriter rooted firmly in his heritage, and backed by some superb musicians and performers, including Jane Wade, who provides a star vocal turn on the Collier Laddie's Wife. This is a magnificent tour-de-force, and it is one of the roots albums of the year. It stands proud alongside John Tams's Reckoning, showing that writing in a traditional vein is as strong as ever.