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Buzzflash Reviews “California Country”

Tony Peyser’s “Blue State Jukebox” Review — May, 2006 Edition

I often find myself writing about musicians from Texas. Maybe it’s because their songs resonate with a strong sense of place: this is where I am, this is where I’ve been, this is where I’m going. Pick up virtually any album by Ray Wylie Hubbard, Adam Carroll or Eliza Gilkyson and that basic terrain will be covered. What they create aren’t just songs for an album but stories from their hometowns.

These basic components are what drew me to a band from right here in the City Of Angels: I See Hawks In L.A. I saw them one night a while back in a club on Hollywood Blvd. called King King that used to be a Chinese restaurant. The songs soared like the birds referenced in the band’s name. I See Hawks sublimely embody the country-rock sound that the legendary Gram Parsons pretty much invented. Parsons — who ignored Neil Young’s advice and burned out instead of rusted — would be proud.

On “Motorcycle Mama” — the opening track from California Country — I See Hawks sing, “I tried to ride with the motorcycle mama/But the motorcycle let me down.” Pedal steel guitars wend their way through this yarn of being lured by the Golden State dream but never quite finding it. One of the main products manufactured on the Left Coast is disappointment but I See Hawks find a way to describe this in a glorious fashion. And the legendary allure lives on with lines like these: “She’s riding free over the trees/crossing over the great divide/I’m down with my tears & beers but I know someday I’ll ride.” The ooh-ooh-oohs in the chorus are as irresistible as the state’s enduring siren call of fun in the sun.

“Raised By Hippies” covers almost forty years in just under six minutes. It’s the saga of a hippie girl born in 1968: “Nixon was heading to that big White House/And the bombs would soon be dropping on the children of Laos.” She has such a sweet and decent disposition that she manages to endure the Reagan and Bush I & II years. And, perhaps most tellingly, it’s the things she learned from her parents that help give them hope during the post-Woodstock era. I’d bet a lava lamp that her peace-and-love Mom and Dad played “Teach Your Children” to their young daughter who luckily paid attention and wound up later teaching them.

Flexing their creative muscles, I See Hawks later chronicle the story of another young girl. But this time, they shelve the innocence and embark on a dark drama called “Golden Girl.” The descent into exploits worthy of one of Jim Thompson’s pulpy novels is not without foreshadowing. The narrator glimpses an angelic 17-year-old in a church choir and observes, “As we bowed our heads in prayer she gave me a wink/I knew our book was written in the devil’s ink.” There’s a palpable conflict here between the music and lyrics. The former seems to be on her side and is always light, airy and seductive. But the latter keeps reminding the listener that this girl is bad news, no matter how good she looks. “Golden Girl” is the polar opposite of “Raised By Hippies,” its landscape riddled with sex, guns, crime, betrayal and revenge. When a robbery goes south in a Navajo bar and the shooting commences, you may find yourself ducking. It’s that vivid a song. This cautionary tale could result in less dates involving bad girls and nice guys.

I had the album playing while I was doing some other work and suddenly found myself delightfully bewildered at the fourth track, “Slash From N’ Roses.” This has a to be some kind of a first: a song about rock and roll identity theft. This crackerjack guitarist — sort of like the kid in “Six Degrees Of Separation” who pretended to be Sidney Poitier’s son — has bamboozled various folks into thinking he’s really the guy from that famous band. As they used to say in every TV Guide sitcom description, “trouble ensues” when the real Slash shows up: “At the top of the highest hill in the hills of Hollywood/Two mansions were competing to see who could/Throw the biggest baddest party this town has ever seen/2690 Beachwood said, ‘We’ve got Slash.’/2693 Beachwood said, ‘Oh yeah? Well, so do we.'” A guitar rumble tumbles out on this canyon street in a climax that’s equal parts mythic and comic. It reminded me of video I saw once around ten years ago but never forgot of Wyclef Jean channeling The Bee Gees in “We Trying To Stay Alive.” Directed by Roman Coppola, it similarly depicted archrivals engaging musical fisticuffs. I See Hawks don’t spell it all out in the song, so we’re allowed to fill in the blanks as the real and faux rockers raise their guitars to do battle. “Slash From Guns N’ Roses” is a one of a kind song that jumps out like a guitar solo by, uh, Slash from Guns N’ Roses.

In “California Country,” I See Hawks put everything they feel about the state they live in to describe the state of mind they live with: “I am a child of the golden state/I grew up in the orchards and fields/I’ve seen farm towns become commuter alleys/And shopping malls eat up the trees/Sometimes I wish for a simpler time/When you could drink right out of the stream/The loneliness around me, freeways just surround me/I’m 30 miles from a field of green …” Whatever sense of frustration and dislocation they feel is upended in the very next line as the mandolin kicks in and they sing, “But I’m still standing in California Country.” This sense of not giving up on where their roots are is also underscored a little later on whey they add, “Only now I understand I could ever leave this land/ I’m a California man.” Along with Mike Stinson’s “Late Great Golden State” — which has already been covered by Dwight Yoakam — “California Country” is another honest-to-God Left Coast anthem. It’s worth noting that the mandolin playing here (and in the aforementioned “Golden Girl”) is especially rousing and harkens back to The Byrds’ groundbreaking Sweethearts Of The Rodeo. This is perhaps because the fellow playing that instrument is none other than Chris Hillman, who used to be in The Byrds. It’s perfectly fitting that a fellow with that lineage is aboard for these songs to pass the country-rock torch.

A few weeks after I was sent this album, one of I See Hawks’ main men — Paul Lacques — called to make sure a) that I got the record and b) that I knew that there was a political track on it. I had and I didn’t. This little life lesson here to impart is if you want someone to know something, tell them.

I didn’t realize right away that “Byrd From West Virginia” was about the Senator Robert Byrd. Apart from the lyrics — which I’ll get to — the song has a stirring, majestic quality with a melody and harmonies that resonate deep into American country and folk traditions. It’s like an A&E Biography episode distilled down to five minutes. It even finds a way to address Byrd’s early racist attitudes: “He burned the cross of Jesus in the West Virginia night/The darkness of America blinded his sight.” Among the landmarks along the way are glimpses of The Great Depression, Byrd’s marriage to a coal miner’s daughter (Loretta Lynn has nothing on him) and his hard work in a shipyard. Further down the road, there’s even a Forrest Gump moment of colliding with people more famous than him: “As a young man in congress he studied law at night/For ten long years he burned a different light/Presented with his J.D. by John Fitzgerald Kennedy/Just before the young president was escorted into history.”

It climaxes some fifty years later with Byrd as the grand old man on the political landscape. I See Hawks can’t help but reveal their shared sense of indignation as they compellingly sing, “And when a reckless new president came calling out for war/Old Byrd from West Virginia sang out the score: ‘The doctrine of preemption is radical and deadly …'” And it tops all this off with these haunting words: “Who will sing this song when the Byrd flies away/Vanished oe’r the hillside at the end of the day/A long voice a crying, a lone voice a crying … Senator Byrd.” All people who make the world better by their presence deserve such a sendoff.

There are rumblings that the next I See Hawks album will have more topical songs on it, which is definitely something to look forward to. In the meantime, California Country will fit the bill as a prime example of the timeless California Country sound.

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Tony Peyser writes political poems every day for BuzzFlash and draws editorial cartoons twice weekly. His new music column, The Blue State Jukebox, is now a monthly feature for BuzzFlash. Mr. Peyser (who loves referring to himself in the third person) is shamelessly using BuzzFlash as a springboard to help him land his dream job: becoming the new Washington Bureau Chief for Talon News.