Sunday, March 26, 2006

Coles Corner by Richard Hawley: Beautiful and Perfect

Perfect records do not grow on trees, friends.

Contrary to the carping of a lot of wags, you can still find the sugar rush of a perfect three-minute pop song with some frequency (if you know where to look), but a 100% perfect full-length album stands as a true rarity in this age of instant and empty musical calories.

I'm not just talking about a disc that's chock-a-block with great songs. There are other significant X factors involved: it takes a clarity of purpose, a vibe of consistency to convert that collection of songs into a cohesive work of art.

A lot of new music crossed these ears last year--good, bad, and indifferent--but I only heard one completely and utterly perfect release in all of 2005. That record was Coles Corner (out on Mute Records), the most recent release by Englishman Richard Hawley.

Like a lot of perfect records, Coles Corner seems an unlikely candidate for such lofty praise, if only because it's so traditional on the surface. Sinatra-style balladry and smoky country blues--Hawley's two principal musical starting points--have left lesser whippersnappers sounding, at best, like pale imitations of the real McCoy (a la Chris Isaak), and at worst like bigger old fogeys than the real so-called old fogeys (I don't care how much photographic evidence you provide me--Harry Connick Jr. remains a bigger geezer than Tony Bennett'll ever be).

Besides, what we've got at heart here is an album full of love songs. Like that hasn't been done before.

But Coles Corner is touched by magic, pure and simple. It's not so much what Richard Hawley does, but how magnificently he does it that makes this record so incandescent.

The disc is a concept album of sorts about a popular Lovers' Lane in Sheffield, England, and it wins half of the perfect-album battle with a flawless, smart, and incredibly catchy set of songs, all memorable little worlds in themselves that capture myriad permutations of that old black magic called love. There's not a single false or wasted note here; not the slightest hint of post-modern irony, camp, or condescension; not a second that feels overly fussy or pretentious; not one moment that doesn't ring resolutely true.

Then there's the other half of the equation--that X factor. With its openly romantic subject matter and its lush (but never overdone) production, Coles Corner hits an incredibly immersive late-night vibe. "Tonight" finds Hawley's unaffectedly dusky croon and a ghostly Duane Eddy-esque guitar melody slow-dancing like two lonely strangers ruminating over broken hearts at closing time. And the nigh-gothic track "The Ocean" builds to a gorgeous wall-of-sound crescendo that recalls Phil Spector without sounding like a slavish carbon copy.

Fortunately Coles Corner doesn't evaporate in the sunlight like so many other late-night records. That's because the backbone of the record--the songwriting--holds so strongly. It's a bit ironic that two of the most affecting country songs I've heard in the last year--the chugging Glen Campbell shuffle of "Just Like the Rain" and the too-great-to-be-an-original-but-it-is "Darling Wait for Me"--are on Coles Corner.

If you've ever sat awake at 2am contemplating an unrequited love, you need this record. If you're in love now, you need this record. If you're fed up with rock and roll, you need this record. If you love rock and roll, you need this record. If you think that no one's writing original songs with the elemental power of Johnny Cash or Cole Porter nowadays, you need this record.

I really do try to avert hyperbole here in the Petri Dish, but Hell, I'll just say it: I can't think of a human being alive to whom I wouldn't recommend Richard Hawley's Coles Corner. It is that beautiful, and that perfect.

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