I See Hawks In L.A., “Mystery Drug,” and the sweet alchemy of music
There is an element of alchemy to music. A delicate mixture of technique and intuition, of iterative experimentation informed by insight. There’s a search for and visceral recognition of the golden feeling created when melodies work, harmonies gel, the voices and instruments and words and notes fuse into something so very much more potent than the disparate parts. While not incorrect, explanations invoking interactions of sonic sine waves or release of neurotransmitters do not convey the precious deliciousness of what we feel when music speaks to and moves us, nor why musicians and listeners alike will seek those moments with an almost quest-like zeal. It is, indeed, a powerful elixir that is worth the search.
Fans of the cosmic country rock band I See Hawks In L.A. could make a strong case that they’ve found a reliable fount from which this elixir flows. Fittingly, the Hawks’ latest CD is called “Mystery Drug.”
The Hawks joyfully and adroitly blend country and rock, soaring three-part harmonies and wryly poetic lyrics into a sound that positions them in the California country tradition of The Byrds, Gram Parsons and The Flying Burrito Brothers with more than a nod to the Grateful Dead. But the Hawks are far from being mere echoes of bands gone by. Their delectably restless rambles through American roots music (including country, rock, bluegrass, honky-tonk, psychedelia and folk) and lyrics that range from evocative to acidic and from wistful to playfully ironic has garnered them widespread praise in both the US and Europe.
I See Hawks In L.A. — Rob Waller on lead vocals and acoustic guitar, Paul Lacques on guitar, steel guitar, dobro, and harmony vocals, Paul Marshall on bass and harmony vocals and Shawn Nourse on drums — have been described by no less an authority as Grammy winner Dave Alvin as “a talented, literate bunch of soulful musicians creating honest and wise roots music for the ages. I See Hawks are indeed one of California’s unique treasures.”
The band’s genesis dates to a “philosophical discussion and rock throwing session” during a 1999 trek to theMojave Desert that also gave rise to their name. Perhaps appropriately, the Hawks say that “the band name was a code, a question, a diffident invitation: If you see hawks [in the urban jungle of LA], then maybe we should talk.” Over the last fifteen years, the Hawks have toured the US, UK and Europe repeatedly and released seven critically acclaimed albums, the latest of which is 2013’s “Mystery Drug.”
While there has been some flux in the Hawks’ line-up over the years, the core collaborative team of Rob Waller and Paul Lacques has remained constant and is the primary well from which the Hawks’ sound flows. Waller and Lacques co-write the majority of the songs and their outlook — both literal and figurative — directly informs the topics and how they choose to convey their view, the setting or the story of each song.
Waller’s rich baritone lead voice is the most constant thread woven through the Hawks’ sound. Waller’s voice has resonance, confidence and nuance that is sorely lacking in more processed music. Waller’s phrasing and unselfconscious ability to get a full sound go a long way toward drawing listeners in, getting them hooked and keeping them coming back for more. Lacques’ layered guitars vary from chiming acoustic to greasy slide to screaming electric; he has an unerring ear for finding the right sound to complement each song, and the range of sounds he creates gives a panoramic breadth to the Hawks’ music that is dynamic and rare in a quartet with one instrumental soloist.
Bassist Paul Marshall (Strawberry Alarm Clock, Brent Mydland) and drummer Shawn Nourse (Dwight Yoakam) are long-flying Hawks and complete the classic quartet line-up. Marshall’s bass lines bubble and weave through songs, adding a depth and understated complexity that both fills out the sound and stitches the parts together. Nourse’s ability to jump different directions creates a solid scaffolding for each song and subtly cues the listener to both the genre and feel (full-out rock, country ballad) and has just the right amount of ornamentation.
The Hawks’ newest album “Mystery Drug” is vibrant, energetic, soulful and more than a little brash. In contrast to the sparse acoustic arrangements and dark reflections of 2012’s “New Kind of Lonely,” on “Mystery Drug” the band returns to their quintessentially Hawksian enthusiastic embrace of a range of roots music forms and spectrum of topics.
Like the band that delivered it, “Mystery Drug” is rife with and draws energy from contrasts. Urban and wild, gentle and abrasive, liberal and libertarian, humorous and earnest, respectful and irreverent, sweetly acoustic and searingly electric, neither band nor album can be easily contained nor categorized.
For example, “The Beauty of the Better States” is an ebullient and (albeit ambiguously) anthemic song powered by Waller’s assured vocals, propulsive rhythm acoustic guitar, Lacques’ sizzling and snarling electric guitar, and the sketch-like lyrics. The feeling, though not directly the subject, of the song speaks to the euphoria of barreling down an empty desert highway powered by internal combustion and slicing through and surrounded by a wild, arid, and angularly mountainous landscape.
The Hawks’ tendency for both tenderness and penchant for perversity comes through in the ominously titled “One Drop of Human Blood,” which — surprise — is about one of the Hawks’ wedding ceremony in the desert wilderness. Given that an earlier paean to married life (“Hallowed Ground”) played behind a particularly gory scene on the HBO series “True Blood,” paradox is hardly new this band.
“Stop Driving Like An Asshole” is (the Hawks say) a “public service announcement” for stopping road idiocy that is full of rubber-necking worthy surprises going beyond the subject and including touches like an angel choir delivering their pronouncement via doo-wop vocals.
While both “Tongues of the Flame” and “The River Knows” are ostensibly about similar topics — Irish ancestors, broadly speaking — the songs feel markedly different, thanks to the songcraft involved. While “Tongues” has a an elliptical, cyclical march-like cadence, “River” has a gentle floating effect, almost like a feather settling through still air in a series of graceful arcs.
The wistfully reflective acoustic “Sky Island” tells of a California-born, Arizona-based activist who fled, fought and was felled by urban sprawl. The protagonist’s struggle mirrors the band’s characteristic search for balance and quest for ineffable, elusive peace.
As the Hawks say, not entirely tongue in cheek, “It’s tough being an alt-country band singing about whales and global warming.”
But the Hawks’ fans, who eagerly seek out the band’s addictive musical alchemy, remain grateful that I See Hawks In L.A. continue roaming their less-traveled and idiosyncratic paths.
Starting today, the Hawks have a run of shows in both Northern and Southern California. For more information, please visit iseehawks.com and the venues’ websites.
I See Hawks In L.A.’s upcoming shows:
Saturday April 19 — The Palms Playhouse, Winters, CA
Friday April 25 — Cinema Bar, Culver City, CA (with Rick Shea)
Sunday April 27 — Stagecoach Music Festival, Indio, CA
Sunday April 27 — The Coffee Gallery Backstage, Altadena, CA (with Paige Andersen & The Fearless Kin)