by Seuras Og
Western Seeds Record Company – 27 August 2021
It feels like I See Hawks in L.A. have been around forever, so it comes as quite a shock to discover they are almost entirely of this century, coming together in 1999. With an intrinsic feel for the ‘cosmic Americana’ that defined and delighted Gram Parsons. Their music, especially with the latest offering, ‘On Our Way‘, occupies a timeless space where ideas and influences jostle freely, unrestrained by fashion or fortune, contributing together a potent message for the moment.
Still featuring original members Rob Waller and Paul Lacques, who together write the bulk of the material with big contributions from Victoria Jacobs, now on drums, alongside longtime member Paul Marshall. All four sing, with Waller and Lacques playing a wealth of stringed instruments, handling guitars, dobro, lap steel, autoharp and mandolin between them. Oh, and jaw harp, which features memorably on one track. With Waller nominally the lead vocalist, all contribute to the backing without being averse to taking the occasional lead. As with most of their work, a host of friends and associates are also present, fleshing out the sound with fiddle, keyboards, accordion, pedal steel, and lots more guitars.
Like many 2020/1 releases, the unmistakable shadow of covid hangs over its gestation, and astonishingly, this entire ensemble piece was put together remotely. Waller and Lacques regularly got together online to flesh out and form the songs; the contributions and backing came in from all sources, iPhone included. The sleeve notes denote the recording credit to ‘Hawks in houses’. That it sounds so tight, in a homespun ‘live in the studio’ way, is no small miracle and is a credit to the skills of the performers and the production, which is also by the band.
When opener, ‘Might’ve Been Me’, starts with the lyric, ‘If you’re walking thru’ Sonoma’, you know already where you are likely to be heading. A mandolin led jangle, with swoops of steel shooting about Waller’s comfortable buckskin baritone, this is prime country-rock of a style before Americana was a word. It’s glorious, evocative of the latterday Byrds. This leads swiftly into the title track, which continues this mood, the melodicism, a dreamy summoning of times gone by, with electric 12-string making an appearance for good measure. Marshall’s bass is integral here, as it is throughout, never flashy, a steady, reassuring hand on the tiller that sounds simple yet is anything but.
A freeform wail of electric fiddle beckons in ‘Just Know What To Do’, demonstrating these are no one-trick ponies, then some backward electric guitar, ahead of a gentle ballad breaking through, over a strummed acoustic. But the background threat implied by the opening remains implicit, building gradually in the hinterland, the controlled vocal battling out the fiddle, a whirlwind just out of eyeshot. I don’t know if a pandemic theme is being invoked, especially within the raga-like middle section before the calm prevails, but that’s the sense it gave me.
I didn’t expect to find the spirit of Jim Morrison in this record, but ‘Mississippi Gas Station Blues’ certainly has his flavour, the song, a strange bastard cousin of the Beach Boys’ ‘Student Demonstration Time’. But Mike Love could never snarl like this. Scuzzy guitars and organ swagger around to put a faded leather jacket on the song. By complete contrast follows ‘Kensington Market’, which, yes, is that London one. With Victoria Jacobs on lead vocal, this is a delightful piece of 60s whimsy, with burbles of synth sneaking through in the background, paired with a baritone guitar. ‘Check out all the crazy people’, she sings, and you can bet there would be flowers in their hair.
‘Kentucky Jesus’ occupies a more old-timey feel, a story song, in waltz time, an oblique tale that asks more questions than it answers. At a faster lick, ‘Geronimo’ is another in the procession of songs about the prominent leader and medicine man from the Bedonkohe band of the Apache people, who, following his arrest, was pitifully paraded around by the authorities, and it is a worthy companion, with a very western feel and twang to it.
‘Stealing’, like ‘Kentucky Jesus’, channels the vocal ambience and songwriting of Canada’s Gordon Lightfoot and is a further sturdy construct of a song about living in the present, with a tune and message that lingers long after the closing bars. In the same vein is ‘If I Move’, which is full of classic two-part harmonies in the chorus, and steel counterpoints, on top of a gentle canter that is all Arizona and campfires.
I guess radio songs are thin on the ground these days, so it is the spirit of the truckers that are being kept alive with ‘Radio Keeps Me On the Ground (Slight Return)’, and the sort of station we are more familiar with from films and boxsets than our own UK experience. It always used to be a sure-fire way of getting your song played, but I am less sure that still applies. Perhaps the weakest song here, it risks an overall sense of comfiness that is, thankfully, totally dispelled by the final track, ’How You Gonna Know’. Entering with the aforesaid jaws harp and some decidedly solid and soulful drumming, before a hypnotically chanted harmony vocal, and spiky guitar: ‘And there’s no-one here to tell us what to do, we’re all on our own”. At his most Horse Latitudes, it is Jim Morrison again, but funkier and with more of a tune. Growing onward and upward, at over eight minutes, it is a transformational show-stopper. The drums have a hypnotic presence throughout, with the feel of a primaeval forest ceremony. Immaculate, fading into keyboard reverie.
Even ahead of the final track, this is a special record, crafted carefully and with love. Little surprise that no less than Dave Alvin has called the band ‘one of California’s hidden treasures’. But, with the eyes-wide and open-mouthed climax of ‘How You Gonna Know’, and the effect it leaves on you, a good and special record has become great and especial.