Late Night Final

The older I grow, the harder I find it to fall in love with albums. Twelve years ago, when my record collection fit in four milk crates, my ears were open to practically anything. Unknown bands left enduring dents on my heart daily. Hence my continued attachment to many artists whom I now, sadly, recognize aren't as exceptional as the square footage I afford them suggests. Sure, "Cruel Summer" still sounds fantastic, but nobody should devote a whole shelf to Bananarama.

It's not that I'm one of those crotchety old critics who insist music "was better back in . . . " and fill in the decade when they still had hair. Worthwhile new releases cross my desk constantly. But the number of times I'm smitten with one—can't wait to play it as soon as a stereo is within reach—decreases with each passing year. I barely spend enough time with the albums I already have an emotional investment in, and competition for my favors is fierce. All the sad young troubadours that come courting me now have Nick Drake and Elliott Smith for rivals.

So please, take all this into consideration when I declare that I'm ready to scale the Smith Tower and shout until my lungs burst to tell everyone how much I adore Late Night Final (on Setanta/Bar None), the solo debut from British guitarist Richard Hawley.

Hawley arrives with an impressive r鳵m頨or CV, as the British say). He cut his teeth in Britpop outfit the Longpigs and currently plays guitar with Pulp, contributing lap steel licks to their recent import We Love Life. He's also worked with Robbie Williams, Beth Orton, and Perry Farrell. But there's nothing about the modest cover of Late Night Final—a photo of Hawley tucked in among the geriatric regulars at a brightly lit snack bar—that suggests it houses a brilliant exercise in top-notch classic pop.

But from the ringing introduction of "Something Is . . . !," Hawley's passion and dedication spring from the speakers. The song unfurls into an expansive performance that recalls the giddy thrills of a finely tuned Dusty Springfield tune, as bracing as standing on a high cliff, looking out across miles of white-capped waves. It's followed by "Baby, You're My Light," the sort of concise, catchy ditty that '60s bands like the Buckinghams used to churn out like clockwork. Hawley's unerring sense of melody persists on the quieter numbers, too; "Long Black Train," with its gently descending bass line, could be a Magnetic Fields cover.

Hawley may be a professional session player, but the instrumental performances throughout the 41-minute disc never overshadow the measured character of the songs. On "Lonely Night," he doubles humming and acoustic guitar with theremin, but the latter doesn't leap out of the mix and distract the way it often does in the mitts of, oh say, Stereolab. The buoyant bounce of the aforementioned "Baby, You're My Light" is augmented by a baby glockenspiel. A snare drum dances a lazy waltz with cocktail piano licks on "Precious Sight."

Yet the consistent focal point is Hawley's voice. On bigger numbers, he's capable of wide-screen drama reminiscent of Scott Walker, albeit minus undue histrionics. As on later records by Dion and the Righteous Brothers, his delivery seems anchored by a gravity born from years of experience. His turn on "No Way Home" reinforces that impression, conveying the same world-weary yet unbowed air as Nick Lowe's The Convincer. Hawley knows when to turn down the flame, too; "Love of My Life" is recorded as close to the mike as any Julie London masterpiece, yielding the type of intimate performance rarely heard from red-blooded adult males since Mike Johnson went MIA.

Holding the album together, and reinforcing its timeless feel, is a recurring theme: Trains. On "Something Is . . . !" he's jumping on "the next train that's blowing round the bend," and on "Lonely Night" he swears, "I won't be at this station too long." The chugging rhythms of "The Nights Are Cold" suggest wheels barreling down a track, and the disc concludes with a wordless choir on the haunting "The Light at the End of the Tunnel (Was a Train Coming the Other Way)."

Train travel is much more romantic than flying. Riding the rails, you can see where you've been recede slowly in the distance and take in the journey to the next destination at a leisurely pace. Airports feel sterile and hurried. Nobody ever rushes up to a departing lover at Gate B-19 (especially in today's security-conscious state) and throws their arms around them, begging them not to go, the way they can on a train platform. Late Night Final captures all those small thrills: the gradual onset of nostalgia, the promise of new adventures, and a damn good reason to stay put in one place a little while longer.

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