Saturday, May 14, 2016

Robert Rex Waller, Jr.: “Fancy Free” (2016) CD Review

I See Hawks In L.A. is one of the best bands going these days, and a big part of their appeal for me is Rob Waller’s voice. Truly, his is one of my favorite voices in current music. There is something wise, experienced, perhaps even a bit hurt in his voice, and yet his voice also a friendly quality. It’s a great combination. With I See Hawks In L.A., Rob Waller sings mostly original material. On his new solo album, Fancy Free, he’s chosen to do other people’s songs, including tunes by The Kinks and Willie Nelson (a really cool and unusual rendition of “Me And Paul”). By the way, while this is a solo album, he gets some help from several of the people who have played with I See Hawks In L.A., including Paul Lacques, Shawn Nourse and Anthony Lacques (Where’s Paul Marshall?).

Robert Waller opens Fancy Free with a beautiful Utah Phillips song, “Walking Through Your Town In The Snow,” a song that was included on Loafer’s Glory (where it was preceded by the spoken word “Moffit Tunnel”). Rob’s rendition is pretty and moving, mostly because of his voice, but also because of the addition of violin. This is just the kind of lyric that is perfectly suited for Rob’s voice: “I’ve got no place to go/All the trains are running slow/I’m walking through your town in the snow/It’s getting late and all the bars are closed.” Rob follows that one with a Neil Young song, “Albuquerque,” a song that was included on Young’s 1975 record Tonight’s The Night. This is another excellent choice for Rob’s voice, with lyrics about the road.

Daniel Johnston’s “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down Your Grievances” is an interesting choice of covers. I really love what Rob does with this song. He gives it a full-band sound, quite a bit different from the original, though Rob pronounces “grievances” the same way Daniel Johnston does on the Yip/Jump album. And the spirit of the song remains the same, of course. (By the way, if you haven’t seen the documentary The Devil And Daniel Johnston, you should check it out.)

Rob Waller does a really good cover of The Kinks’ “Waterloo Sunset.” The Submarines used to do a wonderful cover of this one in concert (maybe they still do; it’s been a while since I’ve seen them). Rob’s version is quite different. It has a kind of pared down sound, with piano being the main instrument accompanying the vocals. It also has a loose vibe which I love, like the recording is capturing an impromptu performance in a parlor somewhere. This disc also contains an unusual cover of “Amazing Grace,” with the lyrics delivered simply, almost as to himself, accompanied by piano and bass. This is a very short rendition, just over a minute long.

This CD’s title track, “Fancy Free,” is an Oak Ridge Boys song. Actually, The Oak Ridge Boys used it as the title track to a record too, theirs being from 1981. This might seem like a surprising choice of songs to cover, but of course I See Hawks In L.A. is a country band. What might be more surprising is what Rob Waller does with it, making it a ridiculously fun tune with something of an island sound. Some of this song’s lyrics had me laughing out loud, particularly this line: “She'd be no good to me if I held her against her will.” As surprising as this track might be, probably the most surprising choice of songs on this disc is “The Air That I Breathe,” a song that was a big hit for The Hollies. It was written by Albert Hammond and Mike Hazlewood, and originally recorded by Albert Hammond on his 1972 record It Never Rains In Southern California. It’s been recorded by a lot of artists over the years, including Phil Everly, Olivia Newton-John, and Barry Manilow, but for some reason it’s just not one I would have guessed Rob Waller would do. That being said, he delivers a really good rendition.

One of my favorite tracks is Rob’s take on Bob Dylan’s “She Belongs To Me.” This version has an unexpected power. And like the Grateful Dead’s version, Rob returns to the opening verse toward the end. But it’s after that that this version gets wild. This is an excellent rendition. The CD then concludes with a very cool version of Herman Hupfield’s “Night Owl,” featuring some nice work on bass. This is absolutely delightful, and is another of the disc’s highlights.

CD Track List
  1. Walking Through Your Town In The Snow
  2. Albuquerque
  3. Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Your Grievances
  4. Waterloo Sunset
  5. Counting My Lucky Stars
  6. Amazing Grace
  7. Fancy Free
  8. Don’t You Pay Them No Mind
  9. Me And Paul
  10. The Air That I Breathe
  11. The Crystal Ship
  12. She Belongs To Me
  13. Night Owl 

Musicians on this CD include Robert Rex Waller, Jr. on vocals and guitar; Marc Doten on piano, bass, organ, synthesizer, backing vocals, percussion and guitar; Paul Lacques on guitar and lap steel; Anthony Lacques on drums; Shawn Nourse on drums; Peter Burke on drums; Robert Rex Waller, Sr. on piano; Joel Guzman on accordion; Marcus Watkins on guitar; Nora Germain on violin; Jerome Edwards on harmonica; Steve Rank on backing vocals; and Katie Williams on backing vocals.

Fancy Free is scheduled to be released on July 1, 2016 through Western Seeds.

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