Blue Rose Records [Release date: 01.05.13]
Alt-country outfit I See Hawks In L.A. are “dabblers” says their guitarist Paul Lacques. “There really are about 20 different ways to chop up country roots music”, he adds, while singer Rob Waller summarizes the band as “A country fruit salad”
On ‘Mystery Drug’ The Hawks explore the hyphen separating Alt. and Country, often lazily described as Americana. Their ability to anchor themselves in traditional musical forms while simultaneously exploring unexpected territories makes them different from the norm.
The L.A. based band make every lyric and nuance count, mainly via Rob Waller’s trad- country baritone which often disguises perceptive and humorous lyrics to make them sound like a cowboy song. Conversely MOR country songs find new layers of substance and meaning via rich harmonies and delicate instrumentation.
The band’s restless musical landscape matches its lyrical diversity. They shift from the eco-political and the spurious to the lovelorn and the poetic, played out over intricate sounds, layered harmonies and occasional hooks. On the sparkling finish to ‘Oklahoma’s Going Dry’, there’s even an ascending psychedelic wash with a Jerry Garcia style guitar line.
As befits their left field focus, the band is signed to a German label as the latest in a never ending trail of odd ball So-Co bands all too happy to transpose their psyche-country imagery to a receptive mainland European audience.
Truth be told, you do have to have a feel for roots music if not country, to get the best out of this album. Rob’s baritone, several sonorous pedal steel lines and glistening harmonies are the stuff of country music, even if the subject matter would be unrecognizable to die-hard Nashville fans.
Curious then, that amidst some beautiful sculptured songs the title track is relatively unremarkable but for the brooding harmonies and lyrical intent. Similarly ‘Yesterday’s Coffee’ is a familiar country tinged love song but with sudden uplifting harmonies.
The slide-led ‘The Beauty Of The Better States’ is different again, being structurally influenced by Dylan. It mixes part alliteration with an exclamatory Zen like delineation of the interconnectedness of all things: “The burning fucking tickle fickle finger in the fire, The higher things and the lower things, It’s a moral case, For existence”.
The subject matter changes as quickly and unexpectedly as some of the music. ‘Mystery Drug’ is an album that doesn’t so much redefine alt-country and simply let it breathe with unfettered expectation. The result is an album that constantly surprises and rarely disappoints in between moments of real revelation.
The wistful irony of ‘We Could All Be In Laughlin Tonight’ (Nevada’s third biggest gambling city) brings a wry smile, while the tic-toc country rock of ‘Sky Island’ is aligned to some vivid geographic imagery in which the words hover, evoke and interweave with melodic harmonies.
Waller’s wearisome vocal has echoes of Dead Can Dance, as he voices universal feelings on an album highlight. The poignant ‘If You Remind Me’ is no less impressive and the humorous ‘My Local Merchants’ comes embedded with the killer couplet: “On a cold bitter night that found me drifting from reality, They saved me with their market driven conviviality”.
The album smolders, shines, sparkles and ultimately stays with you over time. The memorable melodies and chiming tones offset Waller’s unwavering baritone. It’s a tightly wrapped package but delivered with an unhurried sense of purpose, time and meaning. Contrasting songs and diverse subject matter are glued together by Waller’s emotive phrasing and the band’s musical spark.
‘Mystery Drug’ feels like an evocative musical journey. It’s a linear progression through different times, places, landscapes, moods and feelings that leads to the closing ‘The River Knows’. The mesmerizing melody is part pedal steel and part acoustic rhythm as Waller adds a cowboy ‘ooooh’ refrain on the perfect finish to a rewarding album.
‘Mystery Drug’ isn’t so much an addiction as a quiet soothing pleasure that we should all regularly return to enjoy guilt free. **** (4/5)
Review by Pete Feenstra
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