Folkworks, May-June 2008
By Joel Okida
The thinking man’s country ensemble, who seem to soar ever higher over the vast wilderness of hyphenated roots music bands, have released another recording, Hallowed Ground, and it admirably adds to the existing evidence that they deserve their previous acclaim.
Yes, there is some indication that they have some kind of preternatural flower power at their disposal. However, you could eschew the acid folk, biorhythm and blues, hippie-hop, and eco-country tags because the songs that they offer are still just under the good music umbrella, psychedelic-imbued or not.
The Rob Waller-Paul Lacques writing partnership excels at a variety of styles, covering the landscape with the eccentric to the epic. Yes, it’s counter-country done with poetic flair but also digs in with relevancy and depth akin to short story collections. That they have become so good at writing and playing songs that cover such a wide variety of subject matter is now no surprise. Hallowed Ground is the fourth CD from the band and reaffirms the consistency of their efforts and expands the repertoire even more.
Among the many highlights, the opening track, Carbon Dated Love lets the past and the present intertwine as two lovers take a paleontological leap. The soulful, Keep it in a Bottle starts up with some down and dirty guitar riffs and segues into a nearly anthemic flower child ballad. Enter a sweet ring of the lap steel and then the fuzz tones and wah-wahs swing back and forth. The engaging country swing, In the Garden, fiddle-driven with pedal steel weaving in between the harmonies, comes with a stormy global message. The shanty, The Salty Sea, complete with fiddle and bodhran and a nod to traditional Celtic melody, sends us back a couple of centuries to experience an ominous tale of slavery’s imprint. Yolo County Airport, is a honky-tonk trip with the boys where the pedal steel takes off and rocks with abandon. “Environmental Children of the Future” is an ode of sorts to the generation of sunny intent, but dubious design presented with a lilting mantra that lightly disguises any traces of acrimony that might be lurking in between the choruses. The beautifully rendered Never Alive with guest, Gabe Witcher escorting the lyrics with stirring fiddle passages waltzing with Waller’s vocals, is a somber serenade of heartfelt admission. The border song, Good and Foolish Times comes infused with Tex-Mex texture via accordion runs by guest Richie Lawrence and laced with pedal-steel licks for good measure. It’s a tasty and rollicking run down memory lane.
Instrumentally, they produce the tight, right on cohesiveness with their guest players filling in like family, never gilding the lily, but presenting the apropos effect and atmosphere for any given tune. The three-part harmonies ride in and back Waller’s warmly potent lead vocal. His straight ahead articulation often deadpans the ironical lyrics, perhaps making the song even more incisive than had a more sardonic inflection been used. The Hawk rhythm duo of Paul Marshall on bass and drummer, Shawn Nourse, securely anchor the sound down. Hallowed Ground often includes a non-typical country music instrumental arsenal, but what would you expect from a band that never operates inside anyone else’s definition of country music? Lacques’ bodhran beats, a Tex-Mex accordion riff, pennywhistle, Celtic fiddle and a B3 organ lead or embellish here and there while the lap and pedal steel as well as some twangy guitar keep it close to the country roots.
With Hallowed Ground, the Hawks effectively channel their kind of neo-flower power, but lead the renaissance with savvy and wit, bringing it with solid instrumental craft. Collectively, the songs are a rainbow of musical styles and form a poetically edgy telling of the vast California landscape, and mine the equally capacious quirks of the populace. References to local flora and fauna pop up and mix with tales of both the post-modern and historical diaspora, with a not-so-subtle nod to folly and farce, and the Hawks embrace in the telling of it all. Hallowed Ground continues the legacy of sharp and conscious songwriting and introduces new musical flavors, pushing the roots music genre ever forward.
Joel Okida is a struggling artist, struggling writer, and struggling musician. It occurs to him that life is all about the struggle. Fortunately, he did not take up acting. However, he’s not half-bad as a zydeco dancer and the ability to make a mean gumbo and lovely walnut tortes has gotten him by.