Richard Hawley – Hollow Meadows (Parlophone)
CD | DL | LP
His 2012 Mercury nominated ‘Standing At The Sky’s Edge’ shifted Sheffield’s Richard Hawley into a generally wider public consciousness. Having taken a slight departure from his trademark style, he returns with the instantly recognisable sound of ‘Hollow Meadows’.
Not that he’d changed the goalposts that much; on ‘Standing’ he claimed that he’d simply turned up the volume yet within the first ten seconds of ‘I Still Want You’, you know you’re in familiar Hawley territory which pervades all the way through to the low key love song ‘What Love Means’ closing track. And even before the second hand has got halfway round, he’s serenading us with “Sorry I’ve been away too long, I needed just a little more time.” It seems a bit trite to pick up on those opening lines, but best jump on the bandwagon and reference that apologetic lyric, not that it’s a direct reference to the three year gap since the last album; more the sign that certainly lyrically Hawley is still sticking to what he does well and what he knows best with the romantic and dreamy. It might also be a cheeky nod to the fans and the public, knowing they’d pick up on that very line and effectively managing to write his own introduction to the reviews.
Ever fiercely loyal to his South Yorkshire roots, the songs once again were recorded down at Sheffield’s Yellow Arch Studio recording facility in spring 2015, via his shed studio – the wonderfully named ‘Disgracelands’ – where the material was demo-ed, with long time confidantes, collaborators and the band to which he often refers to as brothers. Long-time guitarist and confidant, Shez Sheridan is as ever at the shoulder, the right hand man, the sounding board, co-producing the album with Hawley and Colin Elliot. The fact that many of those original demos were so strong means that they even form part of the finished album, including the vocal of that transcendent opening track.
Once again, the album provides the joy of referencing local landmarks and haunts – the Hawley name linking with the Hollow Meadows locale and history almost accidentally, yet some may point to the fact as simply being destiny intertwining its unseen branches itself into the project. The album also features some notable guests from the UK folk scene, Hawley’s neighbour and friend Martin Simpson, and folk singer of the year Nancy Kerr adding violin and viola to three of the tracks as well as adding her Folk Award winning tones to the marvellously named Hick Street Chip Shop Singers, who are made up of various Sheffield luminaries, including Slow Club’s Rebecca Taylor. Some might wonder why there’s not a bit more of the wonderful Martin Simpson, but with Sheridan and Hawley himself and their collection of classic guitars (guitar enthusiasts check out the liner notes) and sounds, an embarrassment of riches springs to mind.
Other guests include one of Hawley’s oldest and dearest friends, Jarvis Cocker, yet the folk influence is particularly strong, perhaps the Hawley presence on the Bright Phoebus Revisited project a couple of years back (on which Cocker also appeared) has forged and tightened some links. Indeed, deep into the album, ‘Heart Of Oak’ tribute to and inspired by Norma Waterson yet in no way could be classed as remotely folky. It veritably rocks along in a Roy Orbison meets Brit pop direction, not so much in a Stones or Iron Maiden style but a distinctly Hawley style, Dean Beresford playing it in a straight four to the bar style and Hawley grinding out another twisting solo.
Although initially he seems a little bit throatier and a tad less smooth than his trademark velvety tones, the Hawley voice remains echoey and rich – a compliment in labelling him as the closest to Orbison you’ll find. But as a songwriter and guitarist, he makes up the holy trinity. In ‘Which Way’ he cranks whatever classic axe he’s wearing into one of those solos which marks him as leading player in the band of underrated guitarists, volume briefly jacked up to 11 and the needles in the red a la ‘Sky’s Edge.’
Lyrically teasing, from the album’s opening line to ‘Sometimes I Feel’ which sees him going from if not quite the sublime to the ridiculous, certainly one extreme to another: “sometimes if you want to have a clean shirt you’ve got to wash it” to the “sometimes if you want to know which way your train is going all you’ve got to do is dare to catch it” and featuring the subtle chorus of the Hicks St Chip Shop Singers. ‘Tuesday pm’ also has one of a number of gems in the line “not everyone is bulletproof on the battlefield” on a mainly piano and barely discernible acoustic guitar piece; as crystal clear as the close up detail in the cracked glass artwork. It’s a deep sigh of regret expressed in song. And then there’s ‘Long Time Down’s wonderful line – very Morrissey-like – all about working in the slaughterhouse on the outskirts of town; all delightfully underplayed with biscuit tin drums and Simpson’s trademark slide guitar.
It’s hard to argue with the fact that with ‘Hollow Meadows’ Hawley has returned to the brand of cultured songwriting and subtle arrangements that form his catalogue and have cemented his reputation. Lyrical themes of growing old, fallibility and relationships, much of the album plays out on a thoughtful and romantic atmosphere. A feeling of being comforting, warm and familiar with the sweepingly orchestral, expansive and spacey sounds.
He’s the sort of straight talking Yorkshire guy who would be familiar with the saying ‘If it ain’t broken why fix it?’ – whether he’s heard of the slight modification or not, ‘Hollow Meadows’ is a case of ‘If it ain’t broken, make it better.’
You can listen to ‘Heart Of Oak’ from the album:
Fri 23rd Liverpool Dome
Mon 26th Cambridge Corn Exchange
Tue 27th Birmingham Institute
Wed 28th Scarborough Spa – Grand Hall
Fri 30th Dublin Vicar Street
Sun 1st Leeds Academy
Mon 2nd Manchester Albert Hall
Tue 3rd Gateshead Sage
Thu 5th Glasgow Barrowland
Fri 6th Sheffield Arena – Steel Hall
Sun 8th London Roundhouse
Mon 9th Bristol Colston Hall
Tue 10th Southampton Guildhall