In an era when some new bands are anointed as the next big thing within months of forming, it’s refreshing to find an artist who has painstakingly developed his craft and fan base over a period of several years before releasing his first album. Manchester native Laurie Hulme is such a man.
Songs For Walter is the culmination of a five year project that sees Hulme deliver an unusually intimate character study of his late grandfather, sung from the perspective of Walter himself. Many of the tracks have been performed live for several years and his debut EP was lauded by Tom Ravenscroft on BBC 6Music as far back as 2012, but it is only now that Hulme has pulled his batch of Walter-themed songs together with a full band for the first time.
Co-produced with his cousin Ed and recorded in a range of bedrooms, bathrooms, corridors and cellars, the resulting album has a resolutely lo-fi, unpretentious feel one might expect from someone who, far from living off a juicy record contract, still teaches school guitar lessons once a week. There are so many reasons to like Songs For Walter but unfortunately, as an album it is rather underwhelming overall. The effort and passion that has gone into the thirteen songs here is undeniable, but in many cases they fail to take flight.
Having said that, the Walter narrative is a definite success. The first person approach is original and effective, whether it’s Walter reflecting on the Second World War in Dunkirk, wistfully recalling a first date on Meet Me At The Empire, or even being painted head to toe in iodine on his wedding day on Purple Blue. We also get a deeper insight into Walter’s views on the world, ranging from the futility of communism on Useless to his antipathy towards space travel on Moon/Two Out Of Ten.
It’s all infused with the kind of warmth and respect that only this kind of deep empathy with a person can generate. It’s just such a shame that the melodies and music framing these engaging tales of Walter don’t quite do the lyrics justice. There are videos online of Hulme performing some of these songs acoustically and one is left with a unavoidable sense that his fragile, introspective compositions are better suited to a minimal accompaniment, so the powerful storytelling can really shine through.
In contrast, on Songs For Walter, Hulme’s thin reedy voice struggles to assert itself against what is often a muscular, multi-layered electric guitar driven backdrop. The choruses feel a little overcooked, lacking the killer hooks to propel them skywards, and the twee jauntiness of tracks like Flowers On The Windowsill bring back unwelcome memories of American dweeb pop acts such as They Might Be Giants.
It’s no coincidence that the album is at its strongest on the less cluttered songs, like the simple unadorned strum of Nick’s Song. At his best, you can see Hulme as a more eccentric British answer to Bon Iver, or a less bombastic Frank Turner. But all too often he simply doesn’t live up to his promise and as a result, Songs To Walter doesn’t linger in the memory as much as it could, or should.