Monday, April 07, 2003
Solo artists are an odd breed, mixed bags of arrogance and insecurity; "I am great enough to do everything myself and trade purely on my own name" facing off with "no one wants to play with me". Just look at Prince or Har Mar Superstar for the evidence; anyone that desperate for attention and acclaim is bound to have some serious life issues buried somewhere. The parade of volatile pop and soul divas, Mariah, Xtina, J-Lo, et al, with their list of remarkable demands and tantrums, merely adds to the assumption that you have to be pretty fucked-up to go it alone in the music world.
But what happens if you start out in a band and end up on your tod when things go west some time later? Richard Ashcroft's constant musical proclamations of his own genius and vast sensitivity would seem to affirm the fact that he too is an egocentric twat with a mammoth inferiority complex leading to him over-compensating. Sting-style mediocrity and tantric sex marathons await you, Sir Ashcroft. John Squire on the other hand is such a retiring chap that it took him five years of failed attempts to put new bands together before he finally realised it wasn't going to work and he had to carry his songs all on his own. Dave Grohl had solo-status thrust upon him, became reluctant frontman for three albums and then realised that really all he wanted to do was sit behind the kit and bang skins, leading him to join QOTSA for a sabbatical.
An added trauma of ‘indie’ stars going solo is the perpetual quest to maintain their aura of authenticity and cool coupled with the constant struggle to disprove the perpetual “greater than the sum of their parts” tag which most ‘alternative’ bands get lumbered with. Ian Brown, Steve Malkmus, Frank Black, Joe Strummer, Johnny Marr; all have taken up the gauntlet, struggled, and come in second, whether they were frontmen or taciturn guitar-strokers in their heyday. What makes them think it’s gonna be easy outside the safe, nurturing confines of their original gang? If George Michael and Robbie Williams struggle outside of the supposedly suffocating and contrived confines of a boyband, why do artists who lived and breathed their own bands from being teenagers imagine they’ll immediately be able to transfer that unique, organic chemistry into artistic solo success? (Cocaine, that’s why! Dur…)
And if luminaries from indie’s higher echelons fall flat, what makes Richard Hawley, ex-Longpigs string-smith, think he can make a go of it?
Ignore the past. Forget the Longpigs thing. Lowedges (as well as being named after the Sheffield housing estate where my Gran lives) is a wonderful, romantic and human record. It really is. It’s very good. I like it a lot.
Hawley’s managed to make the whole going-solo thing work by forgetting his own past, which is the right thing to do because it doesn’t matter. As the odious Tom Cruise says in Magnolia, the past is the thing which best prevents us moving into the future, or something. And so Richard Hawley doesn’t attempt to react to his old band’s bombastic emotional gothic Britpop in any way, nor does he make a big thing about his time as a jobbing session guitarist for the likes of Pulp, Robbie Williams or All Saints. It’s just a job after all, and better than most if you think about it.
All he’s done is written some songs and then recorded them with some people he knows who can play instruments. It’s a fine idea, and more people should take heed of it. The result is a personal record that’s not cloying and which lacks the influence of ego. Hawley’s deep, characterful burr is reminiscent of Scott Walker, Kurt Wagner or Nick Cave minus the none-more-blackness, deep and rich and mature and fascinatingly untrendy (is there really still such high demand for affected and anonymous falsetto’s emanating from spuriously sensitive young men at the moment? Or for the distorted yelps of proto-punks in skinny trousers?). The musicianship supporting his voice and songs is equally cut from velvet and fine corduroy, 12-string, 6-string, slide and electric guitar, bass, drums, strings, piano and more all deployed with subtle care and a level of attention to detail which enhances the songs rather than distracts from them.
And the songs are great. Simple, heartfelt Jimmy Webb-esque late-night ballads, full of warmth and honesty and generosity, where the subject of the song and the act of singing it becomes more important than the singer. Maybe this sense is derived from Hawley’s passion for motorbikes, where the machine and the journey are the key factors, much more so outside of the hermetically sealed safety-bubble of a car; on a motorbike you become a part of the journey’s landscape, rather than being cut-off from it. The ego can’t sustain itself in the face of this. Oh My Love and the almost-epic The Only Road are built on understatedly repeated themes which build steadily to a climax, The Only Road’s repeated call of “keep me in your heart” heady and strongly emotive. Your thoughts turn to your own loved ones. The trick of balancing character and song between singer and listener is a difficult one but it’s pulled off here on several occasions. It couldn’t be anyone else singing and writing these songs, making these touching observations, but equally it doesn’t matter who Hawley is because his honesty and humility put the audience square in the emotional heart of the music rather than merely aggrandising the singer-as-idol as so many other contemporary (male/alternative) balladeers do. Think of I Say A Little Prayer or Wichita Lineman; it’s the same thing. Travis get close to it but are so blandly MOR and lacking in personality that they can’t really involve the listener’s emotions, and end up as just something to mindlessly hum along with and tap the steering wheel to.
Lowedges reminds me of the lost 90s classic The Magical World Of The Strands by Michael Head & The Strands (Michael & John Head from Shack moonlighting with a flute player and string four-piece), as well as being redolent of Lambchop’s last two albums and the prettier moments of Sparklehorse. It’s a delicate and warm record that’s out of time and out of place, not quite country and not quite folk and not quite soul, rooted perhaps in America more than the UK. The only time it stops in Sheffield is during the beautifully winsome and hopeful I’m On Nights. Even then it’s only lyrically and not musically, as Hawley weaves a simple tale of a man working all hours to keep himself and his sweetheart, even if it means passing her on the stairs as their shift patterns clash. The everything’s-gonna-be-just-fine poignancy of the line “I’m on days / and off tomorrow” as the song slowly culminates is extraordinary and uplifting.
Hawley’s definitely possessed of the realist romance of the long-distance biker. These aren’t songs about an intangible and unattainable romantic ideal; they realise the blood, sweat and tears that love really entails, the comfortable resignation that is loyalty and fidelity, and they celebrate it wholeheartedly. You Don’t Miss Your Water (Till Your River Runs Dry) takes part of its title from Otis Redding but the sentiment is less dramatically selfish and more mature. Otis bemoans his dry well which has presumably run dry ‘cos he’s drunk it that way, and demands his thirst be quenched like a spoilt adolescent. Hawley, on the other hand, is dealing with the motion and flow of a river rather than the artifice and stagnancy of a well; the object of his affections is untethered and natural and has run dry for bigger reasons than simple over-use, and Hawley’s reaction is one of resignation and regret. It’s a subtle difference but a profound one, and reveals a world of difference between Hawley’s attitude to women and Otis’.
Is this indie music then? I don’t really listen to indie anymore, I can’t be doing with it. I can be doing with this. Unashamedly retro, defiantly emotive. This is rich and mature, a good red wine, it satisfies rather than titillates, it’s got no idea what’s cool and it doesn’t care. Yes, I like this.
4/07/2003 04:09:00 pm