“A reeling but seamless blend of fantasy and reality” – Hawks premiere “Last Man in Tujunga” ahead of “Live and Never Learn” release
You know that moment of slight trepidation before biting into an apple? Sure, it looks good, and you really like apples, but will the first bite reveal this one to be nice and crisp or a mushy mess?
Magnify that frisson of suspense 100 times. That’s me about to listen to a new album by a band I like.
In an odd way, it’s harder for me to really enjoy a new release from a favorite band, especially on first listen, than to get into records from acts new to me. While I wouldn’t want anybody to duplicate previous efforts, it usually takes me a while to cotton to new material.
Of course, I have to like how the music sounds. But what I’m really after is feel. Where does the music take me, what moods and memories does it evoke, who do I get to be while I’m listening and – trickiest of all – does the new music work a similar kind of alchemy as previous releases?
It’s a tall order.
I welcomed the news this spring that the country rock quartet I See Hawks In L.A. was gearing up to release their eighth album on June 29. But I have to admit to that old shiver of suspense before playing “Live and Never Learn” the first time.
I all but imprinted on the Hawks’ 2004 release “Grapevine” and have a soft spot in my heart for 2008’s “Hallowed Ground.” I don’t have enough fingers and toes to count the times I’ve seen them play. My phone is so full it thinks twice before saving anything on the calendar app, but I still can’t quite bring myself to remove several must-have Hawks songs from the phone’s music player. Hey, it’s just prudent to keep “Humboldt” handy.
So, yeah, I like this band.
There’s exuberance in their music, regret, hard-won wisdom, humor and wit. I can blast “Wonder Valley Fight Song” and feel like a badass for four minutes and 53 seconds, or call up “The River Knows” to float on the sense that current difficulties will become less pressing. There’s connection to community and location.
There’s an imagined place their music lets me visit. It’s Mojave-esque but the details are hazy and variable. Sometimes there’s a road; sometimes the lyrics suggest a trail. The drums may sketch a distant train. There are mountains and playas, rocky escarpments, a lot of sky and few people. I feel good there and unconsciously hope for another trip, another view, with each new Hawks release. Some give glimpses; some offer vistas.
It isn’t that the Hawks’ songs are all about the desert, but this is the landscape the music most frequently conjures in my mind. The second-place finisher is a fictionalized version of Los Angeles that, frankly, is probably closer to reality than the monolithic sprawl of my Northern Californian perception. To borrow a lyric, where they lead, I will follow. And I’m most satisfied with Hawks releases that give a sense of where we’re going.
I cue up the preview copy of “Live and Never Learn,” index finger hovering over the play button. Will this one be a ticket to my nebulous desert sanctuary? Is this apple a keeper?
I hit play.
This record and I were good friends after just a listen or two. We’re practically making plans to go camping together next weekend. I know just where we’ll go. The music suggested it.
This one’s a keeper right to the core.
* * *
With spirited three-part vocals, evocative lyrics and arrangements that soar, groove and occasionally growl, I See Hawks In L.A.’s sound springs from the intersection of rock, country, psychedelia and folk. They have a big stylistic range and yet always sound like themselves.
There’s Hawksian variety on “Live and Never Learn,” but the album hangs together as a coherent whole, perhaps more than any of their previous releases.
I asked the band what defined their music. Lead singer Rob Waller said he had “no idea.”
“I have a vague idea of the limits of the property,” he said, “but I’ve never had the stamina to hike all the way out there to try and find the fence.”
Lead guitarist Paul Lacques volunteered, “At our best, we’re a cool party for misfits.”
In more mundane terms, I’d say the vocals are at the core of the quintessential Hawks’ sound. There’s soul in Waller’s delivery, a sense there’s a human being expressing something, not just a singer trying to hit the notes and articulate the words. His voice often has an undercurrent of wistful yearning, giving additional heart to the songs.
Lacques and bassist Paul Marshall, both baritones, fit their harmonies around Waller’s lead, trading off who sings high and who sings low. Their voices blend so well it’s difficult to unbraid the harmonies.
And there’s a new featured voice on “Live and Never Learn.” Drummer, singer and songwriter Victoria Jacobs, the newest Hawk, contributed harmony vocals to three earlier songs, and steps to the front twice on this album. Perhaps because she’s introduced alternating with Waller on “My Parka Saved Me,” adding this new voice to the palette works.
The Hawks’ instrumentation supports the vocals. Lacques’ lead electric, acoustic and steel guitar lines are as explosive or delicate as needed, with Waller’s rhythm acoustic as counterpoint. Marshall’s bass lines embroider the songs, providing understated complexity. Jacobs can rock propulsively or play with a smooth country cadence.
“‘Mystery Drug’ [the Hawks’ previous release] featured Victoria drumming on four tracks,” said Lacques, “kind of a transition, but ‘Live and Never Learn’ is the first album she’s on every cut, and she’s songwriter or co-songwriter on three songs. Her style is a major influence on the sound. She’s a very subtle, groove-oriented drummer, religiously avoids flashy fills.”
Jacobs said that she came from a rock background, “and now I’m playing shuffles and train beats,” describing the change as both fun and a challenge.
“When I first joined I would try and copy what was being played,” she said. “Now I feel comfortable with adding my own feel or style to songs.”
While the Hawks have been busy touring and working on other projects, “Live and Never Learn” is the band’s first release since 2013.
“Somehow five years had gone by in a flash and we were ready,” said Waller. “I also particularly wanted to capture the sound of the Hawks with Victoria behind the drums. We’ve definitely evolved over these last few years and had something new to say both musically and lyrically.”
“The spirit moved us last year,” said Lacques, “and we came up with quite a few songs. And we worked up a couple of oldies and finally got good versions.”
It’s been a rough few years personally for the Hawks.
“I lost my mom in 2015 and Paul L. lost both his parents in the last year and a half,” said Waller.
“I think those kinds of primary losses really cause a major shift in perspective,” he reflected. “A generational shift.”
According to Lacques, the material on the new album “isn’t so much about specific losses or crises, but is certainly informed by it. Many of the songs are about acceptance, or dualism – life throws you impossible choices, and you choose.”
Of the new songs, “‘Planet Earth’ is the most directly about loss,” said Waller, “about leaving the planet and thinking back nostalgically about how great and easy life was, reflecting on the good parts.”
But that’s not to say the record comes across as a collection of mid-tempo musings on mortality. Far from it. There are waltzes, ballads, shuffles, rave-ups and romps about topics as varied as card sharks, trees and mountains, and getting dumped via cell phone during a wildfire.
That song about one hell of a bad day is “Last Man in Tujunga,” which is premiered here.
Marshall said that, “like a lot of Hawks songs, it’s a reeling but seamless blend of fantasy and reality.”
And how exactly did Waller and Lacques hit upon this combination of topics as the premise for a song?
“Rob might remember,” said Lacques, “but the song seems like it was one of those spontaneous combustions that often happen when we’re jamming.”
While Waller and Lacques wrote the song in 2004 or 2005, the Hawks hadn’t been able to get a satisfactory recording of it.
Fast-forward to 2017, when wildfires forced Marshall to evacuate his Tujunga home twice.
“The fires were certainly an inspiration and a reminder,” said Waller. “We first did it again at a gig last fall, and it sounded so good with Victoria I really wanted to record it. It felt really good to resurrect it.”
“Playing this song now is like experiencing a musical collage of the song’s long existence,” said Marshall, “and my most recent adventure of last summer, saying to myself, ‘Well, I guess I gotta go now,’ as the 30 foot high flames approached within a couple of blocks of my home.”
“It’s kind of funny with the dated phone plan lyrics,” said Waller. “No one has to worry about ‘burning’ through minutes anymore! But that’s all more charming to me and fits with the theme of living and never learning quite well.”
While Waller and Lacques are the band’s principal songwriters, they don’t eschew collaboration.
“Rob and I have always worked with other writers, notably my brother Anthony,” said Lacques, “and Paul Marshall and Victoria have had songwriting [credits] or co-writes on a number of albums. A big new addition on “Live And Never Learn” is Peter Davies, from UK folk band The Good Intentions. We’ve co-written an entire album’s worth of songs with Peter, which we’ll release as a Hawks/Intentions collaboration CD later this year or early 2019. We liked two of the songs so much that we stole them for this record.” Members of Old Californio co-wrote one song.
The Hawks are hitting the road for a string of album release shows in the US and UK, including one tonight at The Palms Playhouse in Winters, Calif. Singer, songwriter and guitarist Rick Shea will open that show and join the Hawks.
Lacques commented that Shea is “one of the fifth Hawks, and we get him up on stage whenever we can.”
Shea’s previous appearances at the club include solo shows, concerts with Dave Alvin and with Mary McCaslin – and with the Hawks the first time they played The Palms back in 2005 in a touring adventure memorialized in “Yolo County Airport.”
The Hawks will be at Berkeley’s Freight & Salvage on Saturday with Red Meat and at McCabe’s in Santa Monica on Sunday with Tony Gilkyson.
For more information, visit iseehawks.com and the venues’ websites.
I See Hawks In L.A.’s up-coming shows include:
Thursday, June 7: The Palms Playhouse in Winters, Calif. with Rick Shea
Saturday, June 9: The Freight & Salvage in Berkeley, Calif. with Red Meat
Sunday, June 10: McCabe’s in Santa Monica, Calif. with Tony Gilkyson