by j. poet
I See Hawks in LA
Shoulda Been Gold
(American Beat, 2010)
It’s hard to write about California country without mentioning Gram Parsons, so let’s get that out of the way early on. I See Hawks in LA probably wouldn’t exist if Parsons didn’t open up the minds of hippies and rockers to the joys of traditional country music. That being said, their sound owes little to Parsons’ brand of cosmic country. I See Hawks can play hardcore honky tonk with the best of them, but that’s only part of their appeal. Their hard-to-pigeonhole sound also has a firm grasp on folk, blues, psychedelia, Cajun, bluegrass, and other strains of roots/Americana, but what really sets them apart is their politically astute, left-leaning, eco-friendly lyrics, and humor.
The Hawks have released four albums on small indie labels. Many of them are hard to find as the new decade dawns, so this “greatest hits” collection on Collector’s Choice’s new Americana subdivision makes good sense. It collects 10 tracks cut between 2000 and 2009—including half of the tunes from 2004’s Grapevine, maybe their most potent release—and seven songs that see the light of day for the first time here. Three of them were recorded specially for this CD, including “Bossier City” and “Laissez Les Bon Temps Roulet”—both feature harmony vocals from Carla Olson, former Textone leader and a gal who knows her country.
Rob Waller sings lead and plays acoustic rhythm guitar. Paul Lacques shreds on all kinds of guitars in any style you want to mention. He also sings and plays Dobro and lap steel. Paul Marshall plays bass and adds the third voice to the harmonies, and Shawn Nourse is the drummer. The Hawks are a cohesive quartet, but it’s Lacques on guitar and Waller’s singing that make them a force to be reckoned with. Waller is a great vocalist and easily brings the band’s two main influences together in his singing. “Soul Power”, a previously unreleased rocker, shows off Waller’s gritty side. It’s a straightforward blues-rock tune with a relentless rhythm and Allman Brothers-style guitar harmonies supplied by guest picker Marcus Watkins. Waller delivers the sexual lyrics—“We’ve got the power of nature underneath our clothes”—with a perfect balance of swagger and sincerity. “Bossier City”, a goodbye to a faithless lover, likens the end of a relationship to the end of summer, with a chilly pedal steel solo and Olson’s harmonies adding to the forlorn aura. “Laissez Les Bon Temps Roulet” is the other side of the coin, a celebration of a lasting relationship, with Olson turning up the heat on her vocal part. The fractured French of the chorus and the added fiddle and accordion give the number a vaguely Cajun feel. The portrait of lovers growing old together is presented without the cloying sentimentality that often mars songs of this type.
“Sexy Vacation” is a more straightforward, Cajun-flavored two-step, another song about a failed relationship with great harmonies, a lively solo from Lacques, and sharp, snarky lyrics like, “The road to hell is paved with heavenly delights.” “Shoulda Been Gold” is a sunshine-drenched California country tune that suggests the Beach Boys, although it sounds very little like them. The poignant harmonies and pedal steel paint a melancholy picture of broken hearts still dreaming of the good times. The demo of “I See Hawks in LA” is from the band’s first recording session in 2000. It’s a lonesome country blues song with a lap steel solo as empty as a midnight sky. “Mystery of Fife” is a secular spiritual that was cut live in 2004. There’s bare-bones guitar and fiddle on the track, but it’s the three-part gospel harmonies that make this one a keeper.
The 10 oldies here were all hits to Hawks fans, and hopefully this release will get them some much-deserved recognition. The ecological lament “Hope Against Hope” is a countrified folk song and promises to keep fighting for the preservation of the planet; a weary lap steel adds touching accents to Waller’s distressed vocal. “Byrd from West Virginia” is a folk ballad about Robert Byrd, the conservative senator from West Virginia who was in the KKK as a young man, but wound up opposed to the Iraq War and voted for health care reform as a tribute to his friend Ed Kennedy. It’s a complex tune and a reminder that liberals don’t have a monopoly on integrity.
“Humboldt” is a moody psychedelic rocker, and a salute to the pot growers of Northern California. “Raised by Hippies” is a bouncy, country-rock tune about unrepentant hippies, and “Wonder Valley Fight Song” is a funky rocker full of dystopian visions of small town living. The Hawks show off their bluegrass chops on “The Salesman”, which features the banjo of pal Cody Byrant. The salesman of the title could be Jesus or the devil, trying to sell the capitalist dream to people already lulled into a coma by over-consumption, while “Grapevine Texarkanada” is a quiet mid-tempo ballad that takes its name from a notorious stretch of road in California known for multi-car pile ups brought about by heavy fog. Beautiful harmonies and Lacques’ subtle, twang-heavy lead give it a dreamy, laid-back feel.
The band’s literate-leaning lyrics may have some thinking that they are a bit too pretentious to be a real country band. But storytelling has always been part of the cowboy tradition, and California has always been friendly to mavericks, from the twang of Buck and Merle’s Bakersfield to the shredding cowpunk of Tex and the Horseheads. With their glistening harmonies, sharp songwriting, and a cosmic outlook that stays rooted in the tumbleweeds and Joshua trees, I See Hawks in LA fits right into the Golden State’s noble country lineage.
Listen: Various Tracks [at myspace.com]
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