In their debut album Great Willow have managed to recreate and update the sound of the California canyons in the sixties. The reference is there to the 60’s sounds of (amongst others) the Byrds and the singing of Gene Clark. Great Willow are James Coombs and Erin Hawkins, with their exquisite harmony singing and with them are Rich McCulley playing guitar, and Ed Barguirena on drums. And, throughout, the mariachi horns, providing what is, at times, almost a “Tex-Mex” feel.
Here is carefully presented a song cycle, describing in snapshots, three weeks in California, and the ebbs and flows of a relationship. The clever lyric writing that refers to the everyday tensions, suspensions and solutions can affect us all. All this takes place on a journey from Petaluma, in San Francisco, down the West Coast to Los Angeles. Four Hundred miles! But, this is not a road trip as such, rather the summation of impressions that lead you to finding yourself in L.A. and beyond! All through the feelings, the music, the singing, and the lyrics, you are picked up, and told thing or two.
This review is a subjective response to those impressions. If you listen carefully, you will benefit intrinsically, from what is one of the ultimate journeys on earth, down the West Coast of the United States. “You Taught me many things…” says the first track with James and Erin in perfect harmony, describing dependency in a relationship. “Without you I’m a crooked tree, a crippled crow.” Such lyrics here, and throughout the album, hold the listener actively.
Petaluma, “from the sunshine” starts the journey, with reference to “a hole in time,” and “99” and glimpses: “a washed out grassy hillside,” a bike ride, a farm, and “all the boards, dry as a bone.” Rear View Mirror (“I was passing through. I was never there”) is a pluckingly insistent track with great lead guitar noting that, on a journey, you are aware of a lot of towns after you have passed through them! Track 4 is the title track. Los Angeles is a place to find yourself in. Mariachi style playing and references to Pizarro and Magellan. A place where “you will do just fine.”
The New Normal is the longest track on the album, a song that works because of its singing, and the phrasing, with internal rhymes and repetitions: “I sat in the bed of a dead river from long ago/ To see if its old flow could show what I don’t know.” Simple thoughts yet moving and thoughtful insights. Worthy of many careful listenings. And this is followed by their version of Gene Clark’s With Care from Someone. Erin and James’ rendition compares more than favourably with that of Gene Clark and Doug Dillard all those years ago. And the banjo figures too!! This is really the part of the album’s suite that deals with restitution and solution, from “my aching heart” to swinging freely as one!
The last four tracks confirm the richness and depth of the album. Just listen to James’ lyrics and voice in Time Bombs, Secretly Happy and No City Can Cure Me. The consideration of the ups and downs of life is all here with a final quiet realisation and resolution: “Looks like a good time to start all over again” when “Love Will Finally Find You.” Excellent.