British guitarist turned singer/songwriter Richard Hawley (Longpigs, Pulp, All Saints) really has a fine, precise ear. His newly released third album, Coles Corner, sounds utterly perfect. Coproduced by friend and multi-instrumentalist Colin Elliot (together they produced last year’s stunning debut by A Girl Called Eddy), the album has an autumn chill about it. When Hawley sings in his simple yet embraceable manner you can see his breath, feel his dejected tone. He’s a hurtin’ one-woman man.
Coles Corner is the place to meet friends, family and future lovers in Hawley’s hometown of Sheffield. On the album cover Hawley waits at Coles in the cold with a bouquet of lilies and baby’s breath clutched in his delicate hands. On the back cover we see the bouquet poking out of the litterbin. It’s a little hard to take. But don’t cry for him, he’s way too busy obsessing over his songs, making them sound like grand, atmospheric 1950s standards. I’ve never heard nostalgic arrangements done so exquisitely. There’s a little Sun Records here, Santo And Johnny there and a big whoop-ass helping of Sinatra “Only The Lonely” heartbreaking tenderness.
The title track opens with an unbelievably exquisite-sounding rush of violins and delicate piano. The arrangement is bold and majestic in that Scott Walker way. But where Walker as a vocalist gets all grand and queeny, Hawley is more simplistic, like an early Glen Campbell or Roy Orbison. “Maybe there’s someone waiting for me,” one of his more cliché lyrics goes. “With a smile and a flower in her hair.” But later he sings, “I’m going downtown where there’s people/ The loneliness hangs in the air/ And no one there real waiting for me/ No smile/ No flower/ No hair.” It’s a sly, funny moment.
On the sleepy “Born Under A Bad Sign” Hawley channels Morrissey channelling Ricky Nelson as his gently jangling guitar accompanies his singing. “All of your life/ Staring at white lines/ Reading the road signs.” The single “The Ocean” is a sweeping dramatic opus. It builds as it goes. Halfway through, the ever-present soft hushaby string section gives way to intense, blazing guitars and crashing violins as Hawley’s raw voice makes his painful plea. It’s a mesmerizing and appropriate orchestration.
At first I found Hawley’s voice not that impressive or expressive. It didn’t grab me. But after several listens he won me over. His singing is not just his voice, it’s his writing, his musicianship and his arrangements. The last track is an instrumental called “Last Orders.” It sounds just like him.
Melbourne-based Sally Seltmann could be Hawley’s quirky little sister. She’s a one-woman show and she calls herself New Buffalo. On her full-length debut, The Last Beautiful Day, she dazzles with obscure and spazzy soundscapes. Seltmann produced, recorded and wrote all the songs. She sings and plays guitar, bass, piano, keys and programming. She’s a real catch.
Her songs have a style and vision similar in feel to the works of Björk, Jane Siberry and label mate Feist. They have that Tom Waits/Kurt Weill seriousness about them (with sprinkles on top). There’s a childlike innocence embedded within.
“Recovery” is full of off-kilter clips and claps that skip along to a multilayered Seltmann chorus as she girlishly defines her emotional state. “Troubled times appearing now/ Recovery,” she chants. “Looks like it’s going to be okay/ It’s a new day.” On “No Party” Seltmann hums and haws with electronic spacey blips swirling through subtle horns, drums and guitars. “Oh, the colours in my mind/ Patterns in my eyes,” she dizzily proclaims.
The album has such an inventive richness to it. My only complaint is that, lyrically, it gets a little too “sugar and spice and everything nice.” It wears a bit thin. But just listen to the fabulous “On Sunday” and how Seltmann loops samples of jazz standards so effortlessly. It’s dazzling, magical, even. She’s the supreme seducer of sumptuous sounds.