At turns familiar, jocular, thoughtful and experimental – another great album from one of Americana’s greatest bands.
What can one say about I See Hawks in LA? It’s customary to reference their indebtedness to Grateful Dead circa ‘American Beauty‘ / ‘Working Man’s Dead‘ – which is a great debt to have. And it has been noticed before that for a band who enshrine the hippy ideal in song they have a rugged consistency to them – and when that consistency is to be consistently at the top of their musical game then that is no bad thing either. So, here we are with the band’s tenth album and despite it all – lockdowns, Covid, facetime sessions for songwriting and recording musical parts separately then stitching the together into a glorious whole – it can be safely said that, yes, I See Hawks in LA have done it again and delivered an album destined for best of the year lists. It’s that dream of an album – where there are song-writing contributions from most of the band (only bassist Paul Marshall doesn’t have a writing credit) and the combination of writing talents compliments rather than jars.
Opener ‘Might’ve been Me‘ takes all those best influences for a song that falls somewhere between bluegrass and folk for a tale of dandelion tea and mysticism, who has entranced another “apprentice” for her magic: – there’s surely devotion to be detected in “She’s the fair and barefoot maiden / In the corner of your eye/ And she gathers stray vibrations from the dead / She says I’m her apprentice / And yesterday she sent me / To gather bitter greens from your backyard“, but it’s not completely clear who for. A complete change around can be found on ‘Kensington Market‘ which finds drummer Victoria Jacobs wandering in a psychedelic haze through Kensington Market, where she plans to “Get lost in the winding passages / Check out all the crazy people / And take a look around.” There’s something of a Byrdsian feel to this exploration of a Strange New World, there’s a nod to the Buffalo Springfield too and a huge portion of adopted British Sixties Psychedelia.
Paul Marshall takes lead vocals for ‘Radio Keeps Me on the Ground‘, a co-write with James Combs of Great Willow, a fine chuncking growler of a song, which shuffles around deliciously as it delivers its simple message – listen to your radio, an instruction as old as rock and roll itself. In these days of pre-programmed DJs it’s maybe harder to find those voices who’ll bring one something more magic than the pre-packaged, but when you find it then it’s something to cling to. ‘Stealing‘ is a double pedal steel dreamy country-rock ballad – with maybe a wider undertone to the softly whispered ‘We gotta learn together now“, because, as the song describes, the world’s going slightly crazy and needs some healing.
The closer is also the longest song on the album, ‘How You Gonna Know?‘ is a hypnotic drone of a song – the reminder that I See Hawks In LA can also go on long and winding excursions to destinations not clearly known. Each Paul Lacques guitar line, or a drum pattern change can lead the listener off down a different path – and Rob Waller’s vocals don’t provide an easy to read map as he sings that “Love is a dirty glacier / From which all rivers flow / Flow like silver / Sink into the inevitable / Darkening as it flows / How you gonna know?” In its unapologetically experimental way it is quite marvellous – one to play over and over in order to divine the deeper meaning. And man, maybe backwards would help, you know, maybe?