EP Review: Joe Hawkes – ‘In The Ashes of The Scalded Earth’.

“As if the first song is the light at the entrance, that welcomes and beckons you in, inside is a thoughtful and contemplative writer, sensitive to loss, grief and loving…”

“He has been told that he sounds like Jeff Buckley, but he doesn’t see the resemblance himself”, reads the briefest of press bios sent to me. He doesn’t, and that is a good thing. While I recognise Buckley as an unquestioned talent, there was always a touch too much simper. And yet I can handle Brett Anderson …I have no reason to offer. My apologies or not as they’re needed.  

Joe Hawkes has a voice that invokes sensitivity just as much by the labour left out as the smooth reeling mid tenor-range. It’s clear and un-gruffed, un-gravelled, precise. The endings of words are cut tight and the end of a line lightly fathered. There’s faint stretches and cracks and the rarest falsetto, it deserves all the space that it gets on the 4 track EP out this weekend.

A light dust of echo pins vox to each track for an updated folk-rock 60s vibe. From the match of light crunch electric / acoustics, to handclaps, tambourines and clean drums, we begin the EP in clean fashion. Gene Clarke, Jim Sullivan, Tom Rush come to mind as the first track runs quick through its nu-shuffle blues.

‘I Love You (But You’re Dead)’ is a sparkle-whit stomp for a crush on a fictional/non fictional character. A relationship built through a one way TV screen rarely ends blissful and happy, but if this is the outcome of mythical heartbreak, I’m glad it was at least considered. Lines like “I wish I could come / Introduce myself / But that can’t be done / ‘Cus I’m alive and you are dead”, are delivered so close to deadpan, so close to the touch of a curled corner smirk, that it’s tough not to feel the endearment… and even a hint of bereavement. The handclaps that follow, all lively and cheer, only serve to preserve the tongue in cheek guise that’s disguised by the style and the sound. 

I confess I expected ‘I Love You…’ to lay down the path moving forward. And while it would have been surely a pleasurable ride, I was happy to find I’m mistaken. Hawkes shows a deftness in playing with arrangements that slink under his steadfast delivery. Later on we get synth waves and samples of strings, and Casio tones that dance in dark corners. We even get shades of compressed programmed drums that shift in their displaced positions. But first ‘New Frontiers’ takes it’s turn.

This could be Franz Ferdinand, geek-guitar indie gold, with descending guitar lines that if beefed up could replace any ‘Room On Fire’ Strokes album track. Every one of these parts is meticulous, with an accidental off-centre dance beat that almost propels the track forwards. The only difference in here is production; there’s still the cute cut of a bedroom made record, in limbo between demo and done.

As arrangements get complex and song structures loosen, I want and wish more for that polish, that last layer of care and attention. It’s rare I chose shine over charm, but when parts are so well carved and placed I start wondering about their potential.

‘Into Thin Air’ and ‘Pact of Forgetting’ are both stripped of those retro-rock colours. Sadness creeps in with more muted chords, strings fill the gaps between picked notes and glides, vocals move for the first time up into falsetto and we’re a mile and a mindset away from ‘I Love You’. As if that song was the light at the entrance, that welcomes and beckons you in, inside is a thoughtful and contemplative writer, sensitive to loss, grief and loving. Pact Of Forgetting’s under-finished sad swoon could be moulded to break hearts on impact... “We were doomed / To reopen this wound / But guilt exhumed / is better than a life entombed” precedes what by any right could be an alternate ending for ‘There Is A Light That Never Goes Out’.  It could be as raw-teared as it gets.

I hope I’m right in thinking this is close to the start of something, that these songs might grow into themselves. If they do, keep me tuned in and listening. If they don’t, they’re just fine as they are (but I can’t promise I won’t keep thinking it).

Joe Hawke’s new EP ‘In The Ashes of the Scaled Earth’ is out now.
It’s available to stream, play and download. Find Joe on Insta and Facebook.

Find my pick of these tracks and other featured artists
Right here on Rats on Run Radio