Robert Rex Waller, Jr. the lead singer with I See Hawks in L.A., decided to do things a little different when he turned his mind to making a solo album. Rather than writing his own material, with the likelihood of it turning into a band album with his name on the cover, he decided instead to focus on the singing. So on Fancy Free he puts his baritone to the service of a covers collection of some of his favourite songs.
As it turns out, save for Paul Marshall (bass duties being handled by producer Marc Doten), the rest of the band, drummer Shawn Nourse and guitarist Paul Lacques, actually do feature on the album. Alongside them are, among others, former member Anthony Lacques also on drums, Waller’s dad on piano, jazz violinist Nora Germain and the legendary Joel Guzman on accordion.
It is, to say the least, a fairly eclectic selection, kicking off with a strumalong honky tonk Walking Through Your Town In The Snow by cult hobo songwriter Utah Phillips, following on with a relatively faithful reading of Neil Young’s Albuquerque, albeit with heavier drums and a fierce accordion rather than guitar solo.
If they hew to the originals, Waller’s take on Daniel Johnston’s Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Your Grievances does anything but. What was once a wheezing pump organ oddity sung in a strangled falsetto, is now a pumped up power pop rocker with shades of Jonathan Richman that suddenly erupts into a strangled Neil Young-like sonic storm coda. And from here it’s only a short inspired step to transform Ray Davies’ Waterloo Sunset into a saloon piano drinker’s ballad.
Scouring the credits for other familiar names, you’ll find many: Willie Nelson’s Me and Paul, though the template here is definitely the version by Johnny Cash. An inevitable Bob Dylan number, a slowly building, muscular She Belongs To Me. A distorted and druggy psychedelic plunge into The Doors’ The Crystal Ship, Manzarak’s swirling organ riffs here taking on a more tin whistle sound. Written by Albert Hammond and Mike Hazlewood, The Air That I Breathe, complete with overkill tubular bells. Robert Ahlert and Bobby Scott also turn up here with Waller’s version of Don’t You Pay Them No Mind. You may well know the jazzy, orchestral recording by Nina Simone, but this is of a decidedly wearied country persuasion, although it still has strings.
The other composer credits will be less familiar, though you may probably know the songs themselves. Certainly that’s the case with John Newton, the slave ship captain turned preacher and abolitionist who wrote the universally known hymn Amazing Grace, briefly rendered here in suitably reverential manner with Waller’s father accompanying him on piano.
The title track comes from the pens of Roy August and Jimbeau Hinson, and, while their names may mean nothing, country fans will recognise the song as a country #1 for the Oak Ridge Boys, although it’s fair to say that their version didn’t feature fluttering electronic trills, a calypso fairground rhythm, stomping marching claps or high pitched backing vocals. The country heart, however, remains.
An even more obscure name is Mike Stinson, a Virginia-born, LA based country singer songwriter whose mid-tempo honky tonk Counting My Lucky Stars, off his 2005 sophomore album, Last Fool At The Bar, is given a slower fiddle-backed ballad treatment, while the album finally closes on a warm, ease on down jazzy note, Marc Doten on piano and upright bass, and Nora Germain offering some Grapelli flavours with Night Owl, a 1930s jazz classic by Herman Hupfeld, the New Jersey-born composer who also wrote the immortal As Time Goes By.
While likely to appeal most to Hawks fans and those with some sort of country leanings, delivered in relaxed style this has much to offer regardless as to whether you fit into that pigeonhole or not.
Fancy Free is out on July 1st via Western Seeds Record Company