An easy confidence comes through from an artist who knows just what works with his voice and words.
When it comes to his second album, Phil Hooley is very much a believer in less is more. The ten tracks on the Yorkshire-based singer-songwriter’s newest release were initially recorded with more bells and whistles, only for Hooley and producer Justin Johnson, realising the sound didn’t do justice to the songs, to make the decision to strip them back down to their bare bones. The songs were given proper room to breathe; drum tracks were removed, but fiddle, cello, piano and guitar stayed.
“She walks in the room with a confident air / With that swing and that thing that can make a man stare,” comes Hooley’s voice with a tender, whisper-like quality, an interesting duality on for a song like ‘Casualty’ that speaks of the confident mask some people wear to try and hide their vulnerability. On the harmonica and fiddle laden ‘The Key’ (expert fiddle playing coming from Jim Van Cleve), Hooley longs for adventure (“Gonna buy me a boat, gonna sail around the world / Gonna see all the places that I’ve been told”) while knowing that his heart will always be calling him home (“The higher you fly you know the further you fall / The more you drive the more those heartstrings call”).
‘Some Say’ is deeply personal to Hooley, the subject of it a friend he lost to his battle with alcoholism some years ago. “Some say he was a drunken man, some say he was a fool / Some say it was a selfish thing for a man like that to do,” he laments. “But the picture I remember in the laughter and the tears / Was that sweet old guitar playing and his voice that I still hear.” ‘If Only’ strikes a jauntier tone with its fiddle, but the lyrical content is actually deceptively deep, Hooley waxing on how he wishes life would be easier and problems more solvable (“If broken hearts were made of china or clay / We’d gather up the pieces and put them safely away / Then one rainy day when we’ve nothing better to do /We’d take out all those fragments and fix ‘em, good as new”).
A decidedly jazz and blues flavour runs through ‘Matter of the Heart’, with its lazy piano (courtesy of Mark Gordon) that would be right at home in a smoky bar, while Hooley struggles to leave a relationship in the past. ‘Magdalena’ is as pure and sweet as a song can get: “Now I don’t believe in angels, but maybe she is one / Cos no matter what the weather she always brings the sun,” Hooley praises of a possible angel in human form. ‘Words’ showcases some more masterful use of the fiddle by Van Cleve, the instrument intertwining seamlessly with the lyrics as Hooley relates never-ending regret over words unsaid in a failed relationship. On ‘The Veteran’s Song’, there is some subtle yet skilled guitar playing that allows Hooley’s lyrics of a worn-down army veteran to be all the more effective.
“Sometimes in the recording process, you can get carried away with the instrumentation and the technological side of things and lose sight of the meaning of the songs,” Hooley reflected on ‘Provenance’ and how its title came about. “This time I felt sure of what I wanted to happen with the songs. I had the confidence to make the changes required in order to refocus on the lyrics. I think it was well worth it. The lyrics are what my songwriting is all about.” And frankly, when Hooley’s quiet yet confident voice is given space to command attention against stripped-back instrumentals, there is simply no disputing that.
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