Lauded singer-songwriter Richard Hawley (a former touring guitarist for Pulp, no less) made his commercial breakthrough on 2005's remarkable, Mercury Prize nominated Coles Corner - his fourth solo album and one that oozed nostalgic balladry, old fashioned lyrical sentiment and cinematic soundtracks in equal measure. Lady's Bridge - the name is yet another ode to his native Sheffield - mines the same seam as Coles Corner, with 11 eloquently charming songs that switch between the romantic strains of opener "Valentine" and "Roll River Roll" and more uppity numbers such as the rhythm & blues infused "Serious" and the countrified twang of tracks like "Tonight the Streets Are Ours" and the Johnny Cash inspired "Dark Road". Hawley's lyricism retains its coruscating, retro feel, his vibrant baritone again matched to rousing orchestral strings, climbing chord sequences and background harmonising, creating atmospheres of dreamy fireside warmth and heartfelt melancholy (see "Lady Solitude"). It's as hopelessly alluring as it sounds: when songs are this timeless, you really could listen to them for the rest of your life. --Paul Sullivan
Review by Thom Jurek
Richard Hawley's last album, Cole's Corner, was nominated and shortlisted for the Mercury Prize (the British equivalent of the Pulitzer). He may not have won it (the Arctic Monkeys did), but it did bring his name and ultimately his music to a far greater group of people than had ever been exposed to them before. This is a grand thing, simply because Hawley's articulate, timeless brand of rock-based pop is sophisticated, focused, and ultimately quite beautiful. In this day and age, a man who can deliver three solid albums and an EP without a crap tune has got something. Cole's Corner, named for a geographical location in Sheffield where Hawley lives, was an elaborate meditation on friendship, memory, and love, inhabited by the ghosts for whom that little piece of real estate -- the concrete corner outside a now bulldozed department store -- was idealized as a piece of hidden history in the human heart. Being an album celebrated by nearly everyone but those critics who have sawdust instead of blood in their veins, it might have been a difficult act to follow and a singular event in the career of a less talented songwriter.
For Hawley, that is not the case. Lady's Bridge -- named for another locale in Sheffield -- is as moving, tender, and literate as its predecessor, without the least bit of formula or pretension applied. The location is Sheffield's oldest bridge, a place that divided the working-class part of the city from its upper-crust denizens. Hawley grew up on the poor side of it. According to what he has said in interviews, Lady's Bridge is also a metaphor for the crossing of a bridge in his own life -- and that doesn't necessarily mean his career. Hawley's father, Dave, a lifelong Teddy Boy from the first generation of the Edwardian youth subculture in the '50, was a gone rockabilly cat who worshipped Gene Vincent (smart man) and played music his entire life. He worked all day and played at night with everyone from the likes of Muddy Waters to the local wannabes; he was a real working musician, and a profound influence on his son. Dave Hawley died after a yearlong battle with lung cancer as Richard was in the process of making this record. His presence is deeply felt on the punchy little rockabilly number "Serious," with its jaunty rhythm, doo wop harmonies, and Hawley's warm, silvery guitar lines strumming and playing those beautiful Paul Burlison lines in the background. His suave baritone has the phrasing of the era down, but he sings in his own voice, and when the reverb-laden guitar break inevitably happens, he doesn't make a big deal of it. It's a timeless pop song that could have been written in 1956, but this is no Stray Cats romp; it comes via a much more literate approach to writing in general. Hawley leaves the crap on the cutting-room floor and gets the tune itself out and doesn't worry about the rest.
This is followed by the album's first single, the brilliant "Tonight the Streets Are Ours." This track is simply gloriously written and performed. There are acoustic and electric guitars, a string orchestra, a backing chorus, a tinkling piano, and even perhaps a glockenspiel. That said, its tight melody and Hawley's relaxed delivery create a multi-textured realm of hopes and dreams that usually exists nowhere but the movies. Truth be told, this cut is one of the only songs in this young century that's as good or better than the movies. It's actually a textbook example of what makes a great song: catchy melody, tight bridge, and a sendoff that's out of this world with its short ramp of instruments. In addition, the listener knows what the tune is about just by the title, but is still uplifted when the full measure comes booming over the box. There are also astonishingly sad ballads here, such as the album opener, "Valentine" (it took cojones to open a record with a song so sad). It's about a pair of lovers who have been together for a long time, and one of them is leaving the world, and is afraid of what that means. The tough realization here, put in an original way, is that most relationships -- especially the successful ones -- end in this way. "Don't need no valentines, no no/Don't need no roses/They just take me back in time, no no/Not you're not here/Anymore/Not anymore." Acoustic guitars strum, strings swell, and drums, heavy on the tom-toms, plod along and underscore every line as Hawley allows his voice to emote just enough to break the listener's heart into bits. Truth be told, though this is a contemporary song, Jack Nitszche would have killed to produce it, and Roy Orbison and Elvis would have paid loads to record it. Hawley's not Chris Isaak; he's in his body, he is the song, he's not a persona -- the song is. That's what matters on Lady's Bridge, as it has on all of his records.
A listen to the forlorn and hauntingly beautiful "Roll River Roll," written about the great Sheffield Flood that claimed dozens of lives, reveals not some dramatic tragedy, but the act of surrender to this force of nature that allows the victim to forget everything but the journey "home." Its waltz tempo is kept by Dean Beresford's kit, a double bassline by Colin Elliot (who co-produced with Hawley), a pair of guitars by Hawley and Shez Sheridan, and John Trier's timeless and elegant but in-the-groove piano, supported by strings that never overwhelm the lighter-than-air melody and harmony in the tune. Another fine tune in waltz tempo is "The Sea Calls." Framed by piano, harmonium, high-strung guitars, vibes, accordion, theremin, Spanish guitar, banjo, lyre, and a drum kit with brushes, it's full of the sea's stormy nature while gliding its way home atop lulling waves. It's perhaps the first "goodbye, dear" sea shanty written in the 21st century disguised as a sophisticated pop song. The bona fide cut time "I'm Looking for Someone to Find Me" evokes "Don't Be Cruel" in its refrain, but it's got more going on. There are backing voices like the Anita Kerr Singers with the Jordanaires, strings, and that rumbling, popping snare and bass drum work of Beresford. Hawley's melody could have been written in the '40s, '50s, '60s -- or now! Its got a big reverbed Duane Eddy-sounding guitar in the middle and gorgeous harmony singing by the band. Hawley's sad song is so upbeat it's impossible to be depressed by it, but it expresses longing in such a pure and direct way that it's nearly profound.
It's followed by the utterly sad "Our Darkness." Again, the title needs no explanation and it's such a complex tune, adorned by the Stocksbridge Brass Band, Trier's Fender Rhodes, a ton of drama, and Elliot playing timpani! The real question is, why isn't it schmaltzy? Because it all feels real, as if it's happening right in front of you. Hawley displaces the surroundings and makes them all part of his voice. There isn't anything but the scene in the tune playing out in front of the listener. It's almost as if this man was born out of time because his work is so utterly rooted in the past, but it feels completely contemporary. He would have been a monster talent to contend with in Doc Pomus' era. It comes to an end on "The Sun Refused to Shine," another atmosphere-drenched ballad that offers the revelation by a trusted friend that the subject was in such a state of self-deception and denial that no one and nothing could cut through it -- it had to play itself out. The wall of sound here is thick and dreamy with electric guitars, echo-chambered feedback (that's easy on the ears), Rhodes piano, vibes, a lap steel snarling in the backdrop, and just layers of it all floating through the tune. Hawley just delivers the words as fact. It's a devastating closer and it couldn't go anywhere else.
Ultimately, Lady's Bridge is a sad kind of record that doesn't leave one depressed. In the great rock & roll tradition, it leaves the listener feeling alive, full of a dreamy kind of awe at what has just transpired and the plain-fact realization is that this is an absolutely brilliant record by a middle-aged man who is just beginning to hit his stride, though everything he's done is relegated to the realm of an accessible kind of art. Listeners may have heard sounds like this before, but never assembled in this way -- and played, not sampled. Lady's Bridge proves that Cole's Corner was no one-off, and dare it be said, this surpasses the previous album in diversity, depth, and elegance without ever sounding false. Anyone who hears this set should be righteously and rightfully floored.
Richard Hawley's 2005 album Coles Corner was refreshingly and, in many ways, reassuringly retro. The album exuded romance in every sense, set to a gorgeous backdrop redolent of the classic Sun Records rockabilly sound and classy post WWII pop. The record was one big beautiful swoon from start to finish. It was also of such a piece-- and so relatively successful-- that it's not the sort of disc that's easy to follow up. By default, Hawley was forced to take one of two routes: Either stray from his stylistic path or stick with the tried and true. With Lady's Bridge he chose the latter.
Like the title of its predecessor, Lady's Bridge is a reference to Hawley's hometown, Sheffield-- specifically, the town's oldest bridge, located in the center of the city. It's also the perfect metaphor for how Hawley's playing things: The album, too, is right in the middle, an echo of Coles Corner without quite as much of that disc's lonely late-night impact. It's also virtually identical to the path Nick Lowe's recently been following, which does Hawley no favors, since Hawley lacks both Lowe's lyrical wit and sense of history. Hawley does, however, have just as astute a sense of craft, and when the acoustic strum of opener "Valentine" gives way to a lush, fully orchestrated swell, it's hard not to be taken aback by his earnest appropriation of a bygone sound.
Yet following Coles Corner, it's nevertheless a little harder to be totally taken in by it. Even when Hawley peps things up with "Serious" or opening single "Tonight the Streets Are Ours", there's something removed and distant about his hyper-romanticism. It begins to feel less like appropriation than note-perfect recreation, like a filmmaker using state of the art digital effects to give his work the look of a weathered old print.
What the evocative but curiously ephemeral Lady's Bridge could really have used is an acknowledgement of the present, some application of Hawley's inspiring songcraft that resonates in harmony with today rather than simply as an escape from the past. There's plenty of room to do that, too, as witnessed in the way Hawley's friend and cohort Jarvis Cocker applies his own croon or erstwhile peer Morrissey shapes something modern out of his mostly backwards looking musical preferences. Lady's Bridge instead hones so rigidly to Hawley's established template that even such pretty tracks as "The Sea Calls" come across anti-climactic. We've heard it all before, not just from Hawley but also from all the sources Hawley mines.
Even as the disc winds down with the setting-sunisms of "Our Darkness" and "The Sun Refused to Shine", Lady's Bridge's mellow conclusion doesn't sound terribly unlike its mellow start or mellow middle. There's been no journey, no emotional progress, and little emotional payoff. For an album and artist so otherwise focused, the effect winds up more soporific than satisfying, however stylish and serene. It's like listening to a faded photo album.
-Joshua Klein, October 18, 2007