Thursday, August 18, 2005

For Every Highway There's A Cul-De-Sac

Two artists who have kept on doing their thing to little or no fanfare release new albums this month – Manchester’s Alfie and former Longpigs and Pulp guitarist Richard Hawley. Oddly, the lesser of the two releases seems to have suddenly captured critics’ attention. Whereas the Alfie record sees the band expanding their reach with more ambitious song structures and a serious attempt to break out of the indie ghetto, Hawley’s ‘Coles Corner’ merely adds extra strings and reverb to an already familiar formula.

Alfie have travelled a long way since their Twisted Nerve beginnings, even if their slim commercial pickings might disguise this. They have now moved beyond the fey pluckings of ‘A Word In Your Ear’ into something still bucolic, but much less comfortable. With ‘Crying At Teatime’, they have not shied away from the big arrangements. What is most impressive is that these arrangements feel entirely integral to the more ambitious songwriting on display. ‘Crying At Teatime’ finds room both for comfortingly familiar whimsy and for a more expansive approach.

The first half of the album is particularly successful, with the phased guitars and seventies west coast elements of first single ‘Your Little Religion’ sitting surprisingly well alongside the early Pink Floyd-esque psychedelic trappings of the song’s melody. ‘Look At You Now’ is similarly ambitious, striving to avoid the restrictions of conventional song structures, whilst the title track injects a welcome burst of pace.

‘Crying At Teatime’ suffers a little in its second half, with the pace and tone becoming a little uniform, with the songs arguably less distinctive, and the more stereotypically dour tones of Lee Gorton’s vocals coming increasingly to the foreground. This is a small criticism though. Whilst it’s not a great record, ‘Crying At Teatime’ is clearly the work of a promising band continuing to try out new ideas and sounds.

I wonder whether Alfie have failed to reap commercial rewards precisely because of their increasing ambition. These are songs with unpredictable twists and turns and wispy, elusive melodies. The sound of the album is decidedly cohesive and the tracks might well meld into one on first listen. The subtle charms of ‘Crying At Teatime’ are really only revealed with repeated listens.

With his debut mini album and ‘Late Night Final’ album, Hawley seemed like an intriguing prospect brimming with potential. This was certainly old fashioned, barroom music, but the songs carried a glow of genuinely warm nostalgia and considerable charm. With much of ‘Coles Corner’, not only is there the sense that Hawley is delivering diminishing returns, but also that the timeless, old-time atmosphere is starting to feel more affected and less convincing with each passing release.

In places, ‘Coles Corner’ proves that it’s a very thin line between a reverent recreation of the past and schmaltz. Hawley presumably intended the sugar rush of strings on the title track and grandiose first single ‘The Ocean’ to expand his reach, but the result is something sickly and lachrymose. If there is a new element on ‘Coles Corner’, it is an attempt to capture some of the polished warmth of the classic Bacharach/David hits. However, the dreamy, romantic feel of these tracks feel like an assumed persona rather than something actually experienced. This sensation is brought into stark relief by the more delicate ‘(Wading Through) The Waters Of My Time’, where Hawley imitates Johnny Cash in both tone and phrasing. Where once the dour Sheffield reality meeting the Nashville fantasy was quietly compelling, it now feels like a formula that has been repeated ad nauseum.

‘Coles Corner’ does however have a number of highlights, mainly when it is at its most underplayed and restrained. ‘I Sleep Alone’ is mournful and stately, whilst ‘Born Under A Bad Sign’ manages to transcend its reverent title by conjuring an endearingly reflective mood. It is the closest track here to the debut mini album, in its sound, pacing and even the shape of its melody. The wonderfully titled ‘Who’s Gonna Shoe Your Tiny Little Feet’ perhaps doesn’t quite live up to its moniker, as its melody is underwritten and obtuse, but its refreshing just to hear something a little further from Hawley’s well-beaten track.
‘Coles Corner’ is mostly difficult to object to – it sounds lovingly crafted and is often nuanced and detailed. If it were to serve as an introduction to Hawley’s oeuvre, it would justifiably be warmly received. It’s not the emotive classic Hawley still promises though. For that, he will have to drift further from the admiring recreation of a classic sound. Next time, a little more Sheffield and a little less Nashville might just do the trick.

No comments: