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Michael Doherty Reviews “Live And Never Learn”

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One of my absolute favorite bands in Los Angeles (or anywhere, for that matter) is I See Hawks In L.A. Part of the reason for that is Rob Waller’s voice, one of the best voices in music these days. It’s a voice that is friendly and wise, experienced, sometimes filled with joy, sometimes with sadness. Another part of the reason is the songwriting. These guys consistently write engaging, honest, and sometimes beautiful material. The band’s new album, Live And Never Learn, is a perfect example of that. All the tracks are originals, nearly an hour of excellent new material. It’s been nearly five years since the band’s last studio release, Mystery Drug. Can that be right? Wow, time is moving much too quickly. This album features the work of several guest musicians, including Richie Lawrence on accordion and piano, Dave Markowitz on fiddle, Danny McGough on organ and synthesizer, and Dave Zirbel on pedal steel.

The Hawks open this album with “Ballad For The Trees.” This is a group that often turns to ecological themes in its material, yet is able to refrain from preaching and to keep from letting messages overpower the music. A steady rhythm gives the song a kind of cheerful vibe from the start, and then when the vocals come in, the lyrics work almost in opposition to that feel. “Have we stripped ourselves of context/Are we drowning in the seas/The facts that come too easily/Friends we never see/Friends we never see.” But then it does rise in optimism. “Here’s a song for the Acacia/Here’s a song for honey bees/Here’s a song just for everyone writing down their dreams.” And we’re off to a great start. “Ballad For The Trees” is followed by “Live And Never Learn,” the album’s title track, which has more of a breezy country vibe. “Well, I try so hard to do what’s right/But that won’t get me through Friday night.” Then there is a surprising section toward the end, with the lyrics coming at you more quickly. “Every promise I knew I’d break/Every friend looks the other way/Every leap I never took/Halfway down, let’s take a look.”

As I mentioned, this band writes some damn good lyrics. In “White Cross,” Rob Waller sings “Good times didn’t suit me/I had to taste the pain” and “I know the angels love me/Even though I did them wrong.” This group conveys heartache so well, but also can provide good times. (I always feel seriously good when I see this band in concert.) Then, as if to prove that, they follow “White Cross” with a rockin’ number about getting stoned and watching Trading Places on a black and white TV, “Stoned With Melissa.” I love those backing vocals, which will likely remind you of early rock and roll and pop tunes. I also love the phrase “vacation from common sense.” Getting stoned is another theme the band does return to. But this song takes a turn and becomes a bit strange in the second half, slowing down and becoming less joyful, and it ends with some spoken word.

“Poour Me,” which was written by all four band members, has a great country sound, with Dave Zirbel adding some wonderful stuff on pedal steel. And it tackles one of those perennial country subjects: problems with drinking. The song opens with the line, “Poor me, poor me, pour me more wine.” Amen. The band approaches the subject with some humor, as in lines like “The eighties was his peak.” And it wouldn’t be an I See Hawks In L.A. album if there weren’t at least a few references to Los Angeles. This song mentions the 110 highway (which has a ridiculously dangerous stretch, with the shortest entrance ramps in existence, for those who haven’t driven this road). That’s followed by “Planet Earth.” This song is a mellow, thoughtful reflection on the state of things and our relation to it. Check out these lyrics: “Thought I saw a magical train/It was just a long shopping mall in the rain/From the corner of my eye to a wish in my brain/That turns a shopping mall into a train/It’s easy, so easy.”

“The Last Man In Tujunga” is a country rock and roll tune about both fire season in southern California and a break-up done over the phone. When he’s losing the signal, he sings “You’re breaking up and I’m losing you.” This one includes a nod to the Rolling Stones.  “My Parka Saved My Life,” which was written by all four band members, features drummer Victoria Jacobs on lead vocals. It’s a strange song, in which Victoria delivers the story as spoken word, and Rob Waller echoes the lines, but sings them. And then the rest of the band provides some wonderful backing vocals, turning the tale of a car accident caused by a drunk driver into something sweet and beautiful. And also funny. This song has me laughing out loud several times, like when Rob suddenly changes his role from echoing Victoria’s lines to adding some of his own, leading her to contradict him, “No, that’s not true.” Another funny moment is when Rob is singing “My parka, my parka, my parka” and Victoria amends the line, giving some new information, “It was my brother’s parka,” and immediately Rob changes his backing vocal line to “It was my brother’s parka.” Still, the song tells a rather serious tale, and ends up being one of my favorite tracks. Victoria Jacobs also provides vocals on the pretty “Spinning,” this time singing the lyrics, which she also wrote. “Spinning, spinning out of time.”

The title “King Of The Rosemead Boogie” does not mislead; this song is a boogie, the music sounding like something ZZ Top might have done in the late 1970s. The lyrics, however, are something else entirely. By the way, for those who don’t reside around here, Rosemead is a city in Los Angeles County. Then I really like the fiddle in “Tearing Me In Two.”  Fiddle is also prominent in “The Isolation Mountains,” a sweet-sounding folk song that is another of the disc’s highlights. “I was pleading with the stars/You turned your back on Mars/Our pillow was the river to the fields.” Am I completely mad, or does this song remind you just a bit of “The First Noel” at moments? The album then concludes with “Stop Me,” which has a light-hearted folk vibe. “I’m staring into the sun/Just want to have some fun/Just like the sweepstakes said/Maybe I’ve already won/Oh, stop me.”

CD Track List

  1. Ballad For The Trees
  2. Live And Never Learn
  3. White Cross
  4. Stoned With Melissa
  5. Poour Me
  6. Planet Earth
  7. The Last Man In Tujunga
  8. Singing In The Wind
  9. My Parka Saved Me
  10. King Of The Rosemead Boogie
  11. Tearing Me In Two
  12. Spinning
  13. The Isolation Mountains
  14. Stop Me

Live And Never Learn is scheduled to be released on June 29, 2018.