The hawthorn tree is known for its hallmark thorns that protrude from its branches seemingly contrary to its delicate spring flowers and iridescent summer fruit. The duality between the beatific and the bristly exemplified by the hawthorn tree is analogous to the musical style of the Los Angeles based duo, the HawtThorns. Following their respective solo careers, Kirsten Proffit, also known as KP Hawthorn, released her solo album Lucky Girl in 2006. Then she enjoyed a stint as part of the country trio Calico, along with Jaime Wyatt and Manda Mosher. Johnny Hawthorn, KP’s partner in both music and matrimony, had stints with both 1990s rock groups Toad the Wet Sprocket and Everclear. KP and Johnny’s music and career diverge in two varying directions. But together as the HawtThorns, melds seamlessly in their debut album Morning Sun.
Shifting between a steely rock and twangy front-porch country, Morning Sun explores the intersection between genres while incorporating a West Coast influence. “All I Know,” featuring both KP and Johnny on vocals, nails the rock inspiration with its riotous guitar riffs. The instrumentation provides a striking counterpoint to the two opposing vocal elements, KP is melodious while Johnny is gritty. Yet the song itself comes together flawlessly without sounding trisected. “Come Back From the Stars” is the quintessential country-rock hybrid with an organ instilling woozy energy. Similarly, “Shaking” purposely lacks the markers of typical country music with only a slight accent contributed by Johnny’s guitar. Even the lyrics suggest a lighter reflection on ill-fated love than heard in a traditional country ditty: “I feel so heavy now, as low as a baritone. I’ve got plans to lighten up even if I gotta do it alone.” The chorus of non-lexical “ooh, ooh, ooh” reaffirms the breathy and light sun-soaked vibe.
Morning Sun, however, does exhibit distinct country-inspired musical elements. “Give Me a Sign” is a twangy foot-stomper while echoing a Beatles inspired chorus of “I’m gonna be your man / Gonna be your man.” The HawtThorns version switches out the Beatles’ dreamy “wanna” for the more impactful “gonna”. In doing so, the HawtThorns give the sentiment more urgency and bravado than the pop-classic.
The album’s highlight, “The 405“, is an unadulterated country ballad. KP’s voice is shimmery and harmonic, often reminiscent of Emmylou Harris. The opening lap steel guitar evokes grand themes of new love, westward travel, and the scenic wonders of “open skies above / The walls of the canyon on either side.” The open road signifies the song’s avowal of buoyant hope and optimism. Here again, the HawtThorns reclaim California as a haven for country music as “The 405” was named after the state’s major interstate. Ironically, the optimism symbolized by the openness of the 405 is unlike the real highway, made famous by its congestion problems. The cynical parallelism between love and a standstill highway renders the naivety first projected by the lyrics much more palpable.
Morning Sun celebrates resilience. “Rebel Road” is a celebration of women who defy expectations and find the “strength inside is coming on / Her wild heart will beat to its own rhythm, and it keeps her strong / She won’t look back for long.” Commercialism and the toil required to find success in the music industry is the crux of their cover of John Moreland’s “Nobody Gives a Damn About Songs Anymore”. Mixing lament with stinging ignition, the song deplores the mercurial nature of the industry and popular appeal. Seemingly, success comes more easily to some artists than others. Especially those who, as the hyperbolic lyric contends, “were born last week with your foot in the door”. In no way is this song a gripe about music. Instead, it’s a call to delve into repertoires and find the artists who have not, and might not, achieve mainstream stardom.
Despite its lush musicality, the album does contain some duds. “Steady Fire” and “Come Back from the Stars” lack character and are uninspired compared to the rest of the album. “Broken Wings” is similar in its banality with the addition of pedestrian lyrics. Equating heartache with immobility is cliché and throwing in the imagery of a bird grounded because “you clipped my broken wings / You cage my energy and try to hold me down” is overused.
Wade through the filler and audiences will find Morning Sun to be an accomplished album. Together, the HawtThorns successfully shine-up classic country music with sumptuous harmonies and innovative instrumentation.