Standing At The Sky's Edge

Richard Hawley

Some albums take time to really appreciate or understand, but some are very immediate. It only took a couple of listens to know that I wasn't going to listen to The Incredible String Band's pretentious nonsense again any time soon. And it only took one run through to know that I was going to love Richard Hawley's latest album.

I was always going to get his new album, regardless. After being five years late to Coles Corner, I've been making up for lost time and have been working my way through all his albums. I've yet to find one I don't like; his brand of deceptively simple song writing and marvellously restrained, slightly retro style has been a revelation. When I read that Standing At The Sky's Edge was something of a departure and he was going all psychedelic, well, I was intrigued. I immediately pre-ordered it on Amazon (this is before we found out they pay no tax, the gits).

It arrived a week ago and I've listened to it almost exclusively since. It is magnificent. The straightforward acoustic strums and clean, tasteful, reverb-laden solos on previous albums give way to a wall of sound and wailing guitars. There's a couple of beautiful, more reflective songs - although even these are decorated with lashings of echoing guitar - but most of the songs are rocking hard.

There are hints of many different influences but the mark of greatness is that although I can name some, I can't think of anything that sounds quite like this. There are definite hints of the more way-out end of Britpop; some Oasis perhaps (and in many respects this is the album Noel Gallagher has been trying - and failing - to make since 1995), Hurricane #1, Dark Star or The Music. But mostly, it is its own music.

All of the songs are excellent and, as Stuart Maconie said in a review in The Word, another sign of a great album is that different songs emerge as favourites over time. But three in particular have grabbed my attention.

"She Brings The Sunlight" is the first track and begins as a slow, dirge-like churn that breaks out the Beatle harmonies on the chorus before exploding with a fantastic, overdriven guitar solo laden with effects (wah-wah, phaser - or possibly a Lesley cabinet - and delay, to my ears). It's hypnotic and increasingly intense, leading up to an even better final solo that suddenly cuts off. I could have done with another several minutes of solo, but that's Richard Hawley - as much as the song needs and no more. Utterly fantastic. "Down In The Woods" is a driving, pounding rocker washed in washes of feedback and a solo that proves you don't need more than a few notes to achieve a memorable effect. And finally, "You Leave Your Body Behind You" is another rocker, a little softer this time.

Standing At The Sky's Edge is a proper guitar album, and I don't mean some guitar-wankery like Steve Vai or Joe Satriani. It literally has guitars all over it - other than the beautiful cover image, all the rest of the booklet's pictures are close-ups of vintage guitars. The variety of textures and sounds Richard Hawley (and his co-guitarist) creates is astonishing - and my point here is that this is what guitar virtuosity really is, not the ability to cram six bazillion notes into a solo. Having stunning songs helps too.

All in all - the kind of record that is the reason I still listen to new music. An instant classic.


69 Love Songs

The Magnetic Fields

This was recommended to me by my friend Paul, and I can understand why he likes it. Paul is a firm subscriber to the "more is more" school of thought, a sentiment he clearly shares with The Magnetic Fields. Sixty-nine songs over three CDs requires a fair investment of time to give it a fair play, and I was a little concerned that it wouldn't be worth it - double albums are rarely without filler, let alone a triple one.

As it turns out, it's easy listening and hasn't needed many goes to get to grips with. Many of the songs are memorable after a couple of listens, and there's lots of good material here. However, it's still too long. There's enough filler to repair the whole field after a demolition derby. You could ditch a dozen songs without affecting the overall quality and still keep the needless consistency of equal numbers of tracks per CD.

My overall impression is of immaturity (69, hur hur) and lack of effort. It sounds like a collection of demos. Some of the songs are more complete than others, while some are barely more than sketches. The arrangements are all underdeveloped and amateurish too; for example, "Let's Pretend We're Bunny Rabbits" is almost, but not quite, like a Beach Boys song. With a bit more effort, it could have been a brilliant pastiche. As it is, it's gently amusing.  Too many of the lyrics are incomplete and apparently first drafts, and although there is plenty of clever clever word-play, there's also too much making-do with cliche, and jarring rhymes that sound like they're the first thing the writer thought of, and later used his cleverness to justify leaving rather than improving.

I haven't read any reviews, but no doubt someone, somewhere, has described this as The Magnetic Fields' "magnum opus". But I think this album is a wasted opportunity. With more effort and better quality control, the most cringe-worthy of the lyrics could be excised, the music vastly improved, the best bits combined and you could easily have two excellent, normal length (15 songs or so) albums.

As it is, you could make a decent single album with the best of the existing songs. Here's my track-listing for it:

  1. I Don't Believe In The Sun
  2. All My Little Words
  3. I Don't Want To Get Over You
  4. Sweet Lovin' Man
  5. When My Boy Walks Down The Street
  6. No-one Will Ever Love You
  7. If You Don't Cry
  8. You're My Only Home
  9. Busby Berkely Dreams
  10. I'm Sorry I Love You
  11. Yeah! Oh, Yeah!
  12. The Night You Can't Remember

In overall sound, much of it is strongly reminiscent of The Divine Comedy, largely because of Stephin Merrit's deep voice but also due to the wordiness and some of the arrangements. There is quite a lot of stylistic variety (albeit too much ukulele for comfort) and a number of different singers, which is just as well as Merrit's voice would be very tedious over this many tracks.

There are a few egregiously bad songs. "Love Is Like Jazz" is a single micro-joke extended for 3 mins and played by people who don't actually know or understand jazz. "Promises Of Eternity" has woefully weedy synthetic strings. "Punk Love" is a complete waste of time (and not very punk, either). "Experimental Music Love" is pointless, even as an art experiment.

So, overall, an interesting exercise, with much to recommend it but fatally flawed - confusing quantity with quality and the sanctity of inspiration with the need for hard work.

However, this doesn't seem to be the general opinion. This is a cult album and inspires a fair amount of misplaced devotion (I say misplaced because anyone describing 69 Love Songs as flawless - as one person does on last.fm - needs to get out of their little indie rut and listen to some real classics). There's a book explaining all the songs, a whole wiki dedicated to it, and a work-in-progress attempt to illustrate the whole thing (for which Paul has submitted one of the most inventive illustrations - yay Paul!).