Sunday, November 23, 2008

Hawksley Workman -- Between The Beautifuls and Los Manlicious (2008)

Hawksley Workman -- Between The Beautifuls and Los Manlicious (Universal Canada/Isadora)

It’s hard to keep up with the various twists and turns in Hawksley Workman’s career, especially because his records aren’t released here in the States. Here’s a singer-songwriter who can pen some pretty mainstream material, who is also capable of over-the-top rock of great cleverness.

On his second album, (Last Night We Were) The Delicious Wolves, Workman emphasized the rock persona a bit more and was rewarded with success both in his home country and certain parts of Europe. But his attempt to consolidate the success with another rock album, Lover/Fighter, fell a bit short, as the rock was a lot more conventional.

He then got back to his singer-songwriter on the delicate Treeful Of Starling. And now, in 2008, Workman has released two albums. Between The Beautifuls came out earlier this year, and it’s the most accessible full length that he’s put out yet.

The album is blessed with basic songcraft. Workman's vocals are a wonder. He has such an effortless range and a certain quirkiness that makes him so distinctive. While he's capable of slyness and cleverness, on Beautifuls, he is achingly sincere, without becoming cloying.

This is evident on the lovely "All the Trees Are Hers". The song is grounded in a simple piano part, augmented by gentle guitars, a pedal steel and some synthesized strings. The melody always seems to be reaching, even moreso on the passionate middle eight. The song is steeped in nature imagery, a motif that is found often on the album.

Such imagery is also used, to a lesser degree, on "September Lilly". Spanish guitar mixes with more weepy pedal steel, on a song that sounds something like a standard. This is a song of pure devotion, with Workman vacillating between doubt, wondering if he's "beautiful enough/for you to kiss me true," while also noting that "I see your dark side/I see the reasons." What mainly comes through is he wants her, oddly noting that "you're fragrant and lovely/like an ending."

The romantic streak gets even wider on "Oh You Delicate Heart". The song is tender with spare instrumentation and Workman's voice at the front of the mix. It's very intimate and a great showcase for his expressive vocals. Again, as with "September Lilly", the melody is so classic that it sounds like this song came from an earlier era.

But don't think that Workman has become a simp. Not many other balladeers would center a song around the line "Don't fuck around anymore," as Hawksley does on "Pomengrate Daffodil". He isn't joking, his voice straining early on. The song then accelerates into a gallop for a good while, a peppy piece of piano pop, before heading into a dramatic bravado ending, with Workman pulling out all of the stops.

Yeah, Beautifuls is a heck of an album. An it shares three cuts with Los Manlicious, a further indication that the latter album was somewhat thrown together. One of those songs, "Piano Blink", is a soulful ditty with Workman showing off his falsetto, while "The City Is a Drag" is a plaintive plea for a simpler life. This is chock full of smart observations such as "it's bright and shiny and improved/with no room left for me to move." Good stuff (and I already told you about the third, "Oh You Delicate Heart").

These three songs provide some contrast to the more energetic material on Manlicious. The album bursts out of the gate with the sexy, guitar fueled "When You Gonna Flower?". This song has a gigantic fuzzy guitar riff and a rumbling rhythm, and Workman moves from insinuating vocals to pure passionate shouting. Meanwhile, little keyboard and guitar bits are brought in for variation on the almighty riff. A great start.

That is one of two tunes that Workman co-wrote with John Southworth. The other one is a delightful slice of '80s styled pop called "Kissing Girls (You Shouldn't Kiss)". It sounds like Private Eyes era Hall & Oates, with an automatic chorus and fluid bass lines.

Another somewhat retro-ish track is "Lonely People". It starts off with an a capella chorus before the mid-tempo beat gets going. But for Workman's vocal acrobatics, this is a very mainstream sounding track (think The Cars circa Heartbeat City without the Ric Ocasek lyrics). Then the harmony vocals kick in on the chorus, followed by crunchy guitars and it doesn't matter, because the song works so well.

The album ends with "Fatty Wants To Dance", which, true to its title, has a good beat to move to and poppin' funk bass. It's kind of a dumb song, but it's also fun, and by this point, Workman has earned the right to get stupid.

All in all, it's pretty impressive that Workman can put out one stellar album, and follow it up with a pretty good effort in the same year. Workman has always been prolific, even selling discs of unreleased material at shows. These two albums show that he should make sure that all of his recordings are widely available, even if no one in the U.S. is smart enough to put his stuff out here.

1 comment:

Elizabeth said...

Had missed this before, but stumbled across it while idly wondering, "What did other people think of Los Manlicious?" You and I are on the same page on both releases, more or less, but mainly I wanted to thank you for an alternate read of a lyric I had always heard as "fragrant and lovely/like an onion."