Monday, March 12, 2012

I See Hawks In L.A. Goes It Lonely

With Nashville having a tight grip on the direction of country music these days, it's always nice to see someone outside Tennessee who understands country rock music. And without a doubt, Los Angeles-based I See Hawks In L.A. is the standard bearer for a different kind of country — something reminiscent of J. D. Souther, Linda Ronstadt, and the early Eagles.

Sure, the band has released five albums over 13 years with a real alternative country sound that’s heavy on the guitars and propelled by a solid rhythm section. But their sixth studio effort, New Kind of Lonely, sees the trio coming to a fork in the road.

They are deliberately choosing the path less traveled. They're listening to their fans, who have raved about their acoustic sets for years. And the result is an album that no longer resists “the siren call of the pedal steel and Telecaster.”

New Kind of Lonely is the first all-acountic album for I See Hawks In L.A.

It's their first all-acoustic album (except for a bit of electric bass), and hopefully not their last. It's also their first fan-driven album, with several hundred supporters kicking in $9,000 to help to record, mix, and master the album. (They had asked for $7,000 via Kickstarter.)

The result is a mellower, less guitar-heavy sound with stronger songwriting and the best three-part harmonies that the band has ever committed to tape. And then the band released it on their label — Western Seeds.

The 13 tracks making up the album explore themes of death, loss, and the environment. The writing, as always seems to be the case with the Hawks, is personal. But the way the lyrics come together is tighter and more meaningful than anything they've written before.

Here, the band performs California Country at the Claremont School of Folk Music. The song muses about the way things have changed in California (for better or mostly worse) over the years.

More than California Country, take a listen to Big Old Hypodermic Needle, which is about two pals overdosing. Other tracks that stand out on the album are The Spirit of Death, which is sprinkled with a Cajun flavor, and Hunger Mountain Breakdown, which is accented by hardworking banjo and fiddle, not unlike something you would have heard on an old Flatt & Scruggs album a few decades back.

I Fell In Love With the Grateful Dead is an ode to everyone’s favorite jam band through the perspective of the Hawks, reminiscing about all of the Dead shows they’ve seen over the years. They manage to pull it off without sounding starry eyed.

When you listen to even those few songs, it becomes a little more obvious that this is a band that does its best work operating outside of the rules. Their musicianship is unrivaled, but it’s those soaring three-part harmonies that truly give the album (and the band) a distinctive edge. 

A little more about the country and folk rock rarity I See Hawks In L.A.

The band includes primary songwriter Rob Waller on guitar and lead vocals; Paul Lacques on guitar, dobro, and vocals; and Paul Marshall on bass and vocals. For the album, the trio is joined by an array of first-rate supporting players, including Gabe Witcher (fiddle), Cliff Wagner (banjo), Dave Raven (drums) and Richie Lawrence (accordion).

With supporting players this talented, the band smartly lets the guitars tone it down to give the other instruments a chance to shine. In fact, the album was recorded in a circle rather than each musician doing his part separately in a traditional studio setting. This adds a homey, old Americana feel to the proceedings that works quite well.

It will be interesting to see who they can be paired with in support of the new album. In the past, they've played with greats like singer/songwriter Chris Hillman (The Byrds), fiery fiddler Brantley Kearns, and David Jackson. Jackson is best known for playing bass for Emmylou Harris and the great Dillard and Clark. (In fact, the band tapped Jackson for advice when they first got together.)

Nowadays, think of the best elements of Gram Parsons’ two solo albums, Sweetheart of the Rodeo-era Byrds, Flying Burrito Brothers, and (acoustic) Powderfinger-era Neil Young, and you’ll have an idea of the sound the band has in mind. They’ve likened it to what the late Parsons called “cosmic American music.”

New Kind Of Lonely By I See Hawks In L.A. Rings 6.3 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

The band is a triple threat with their songwriting, harmonies, and chops. For even those who remember LA’s glorious canyon days, I See Hawks In L.A. captures the sound and vibe without the gloss and nostalgia.

The band’s name is a code or an invitation: if you see hawks, then maybe you and the band should talk. They are currently playing a series of shows in their native California, then traveling to North Carolina and South Carolina for a trio of shows. They'll be back on the West Coast in May.

New Kind Of Lonely by I See Hawks In L.A. is available on iTunes. You can also find New Kind of Lonely on Amazon (including vinyl). The album hasn't hit Barnes & Noble, but you can still find some of their earlier work there.
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