By Paul Hawkins & Thee Awkward Silences
'Unexpected Error' makes no effort to ease the listener into the weird and wonderful world of Paul Hawkins & Thee Awkward Silences, as it opens with a blaring, Atari-esque sound effect that'll make you wonder whether this is, in fact, a comedy album.
However, as layers of synths are added, 'Unexpected Error' builds to an addictive, black-hearted alt-pop song. That obtrusive sound effect runs throughout the whole of the song and, ugly though it may be, it's so relentless that resistance really is futile: you will get this sound stuck in your head.
Unexpected Error' - along with the rest of this album - is all about Hawkins' vocals. Initially, this seems to be its major flaw, as Hawkins sounds like a drunkard with an axe to grind, his whining tones greatly exaggerated by his spoken-word delivery style. However, stick with it and you'll come to appreciate Hawkins' odd charisma. Perhaps it's his heartfelt and often childishly simple lyrics, or perhaps it's impossible not to love a vocalist who's clearly tone deaf, but who sings anyway. In effect, the more tuneless he sounds, the more you'll like him and, by extension, the more you'll like this album.
The vocals of 'Unexpected Error' may be jarring, but second track 'I Fell in Love With a Moment in Time' is far worse, as Hawkins treats us to a tuneless whinge of "I fell in love with a m-ooooooooment in t-iiiiiiime" that's so wrong, it's actually right. 'I Fell in Love...' has an accessible backing track of hand-clapping synths bubbling away beneath spring-heeled drums and poppy backing vocals, ensuring this song is immediately likeable, despite the prog vocals.
'The Battle is Over' is one of the most interesting songs on this interesting album. It sees Hawkins and guest vocalist Diana De Caberrus assume the personas of a traumatised solider and his former sweetheart as they act out a genuinely moving drama. This finger-on-the-pulse narrative perfectly captures both the ex-serviceman's struggle to readjust to civilian life and the civilian's struggle to accept that the person they used to know is gone forever.
Sharing lyrical duties between angular-voiced Hawkins and the country and western strains of Cabarrus not only creates an appealing contrast, but it gives the story a sense of immediacy that'll make you even more involved in its eventual outcome.
This tale bravely tackles an emotive issue and demonstrates an acute instinct for how to engage the listener. The chorus of "the battle is over, how can I go on?" may lack emotional impact due to the vocalists' oddly apathetic delivery but, apart from this, 'The Battle Is Over' is a relentless wrench on the heart strings that's guaranteed to leave you thinking.
The next track 'Music Is My Enemy' offers some much-needed light relief, with its carnival vibe and poppy chorus of "doo-doo-doo" vocal nonsense. However, this is one of Hawkins' weaker offerings, as the song keeps slacking off mid-verse, destroying the flow of the song.
Hawkins also begins muttering away in the background towards the end and this, coupled with all the synths and layered vocals, makes for a swamp of sound you'll struggle to find a way through.
'The Evil Thoughts' lacks immediate impact due to its lack of a definite chorus, which makes it resemble one long, over-complicated verse. However, there's something appealing about how Hawkins doesn't even try to make his vocals fit the music, as he rants away over spring-heeled drums and electro beats like he's providing vocals to a different song entirely. 'The Evil Thoughts' isn't the most immediate cut from this album, but it's one that yields rewards if you work at it.
The punkish riffs of 'There Ain't No Carrot / There Ain't No Stick' draw attention to the subtly snotty tone of Hawkins' voice, giving his vocals a fresh feel that's a welcome surprise after half an album's worth of material.
'Ain't No Carrot....' is a much-needed pause in the endless vocal assault, as it relies more on guitar-driven rhythms, rather than Hawkins' vocals. The exhilarating, no-brainer chorus of "it's so damn hard to carry on with this / there ain't no carrot / there ain't no stick" makes 'Ain't No Carrot....' a perfectly-placed, punk-tinged palate refresher, before Hawkins casts us into his most mind-boggling lyrical maze yet, with 'I Had a Friend in Sarah Vincent.'
This song takes the storytelling of 'The Battle Is Over' one step further, delivering an overblown, theatrically tragic romance that clocks in at just under the ten minute mark. And that ten minutes is mostly Hawkins narrating his tale over a single, pulsing chord, and not much else. However, you'll be so absorbed in the lyrics that you'll hardly notice the lack of musical accompaniment.
Hawkins' disregard for tone and pacing gives him the freedom to say whatever the story demands, regardless of whether it rhymes, and this makes for a complex, fascinating yarn.
'I Had a Friend in Sarah Vincent' won't be to everyone's taste, but it carries enough emotional truth to keep even the most unadventurous music lover completely riveted. Give this song a go, because even if you don't enjoy it as a song, you'll enjoy it as a story.
'Gentleman On Crutches' keeps the focus on storytelling, giving a voice to an old man who throws himself down the stairs just to get some attention. While it may offer nothing Hawkins hasn't already done before, his enthusiasm for the subject matter is palatable as he turns out endless, ghoulishly entertaining lyrics ("I throw myself down the stairs / look forward to intensive care" is just one of many.) On the downside, the repetitive chorus of "no, no, no, no-one wants to know a gentleman on crutches" is uninspired, which is unforgivable considering Hawkins' proven way with words. 'Hate is all Around' sees Hawkins in full-blown preacher mode, enthusing that "I won't let you tell me hate is all around" in his awkwardly charismatic way. From anyone else, these lyrics would be cringe worthy, but Hawkins has the nerdy, overly-earnest voice to not only get away with such lyrics, but to make them poignant.
Hawkins and Thee Awkward Silences sign off with a plodding acoustic ballad that means they don't go out with the bang you'd expect from such an experimental outfit, but pretty much the only thing they haven't done on this album is an acoustic ballad - and, well, here it is.
'We Are Not Other People' is the perfect antidote for anyone suffering musical fatigue, as its comically out-of-tune vocals and character-based songs offer up something outside of the norm, but not completely removed from it. Paul Hawkins & Thee Awkward Silences manage to be constantly intriguing and thought provoking, without flying off on prog tangents, making this a little bit of strangeness everyone can enjoy.