Shoulda Been Gold, the title of the first “greatest hits” collection from I See Hawks in L.A. — and yes, they fully appreciate the irony of releasing a greatest hits disc with no hits — speaks straight to the heart of every fan of an obscure band. In a perfect world, we tell ourselves, everyone would appreciate the genius that we find so obvious. Reading the liner notes to Shoulda Been Gold, there’s also the sense that I See Hawks in L.A. also see alternate realities where label deals didn’t fall through, where the band’s sense of purpose didn’t chafe against a dark decade, or where the group’s revolutionary spirit set a spiritual fire to Nashville. But it wasn’t to be, and I See Hawks in L.A. currently stand in the ranks of the many fine, fine bands that not enough people have heard of.
So what do the Hawks sound like? Well, there’s a fair amount of Southern California via the Flying Burrito Brothers, a little bit of Nashville, plenty of robust harmonies, and tides of pedal steel guitar. It generally sounds immaculate, which may be part of the Hawks’ problem, as their sound (at least on record, anyway) lacks the dirty crunch and ragged edges for folks who think guitar strings should be marinated in beer before recording. The other “problem” might be that a pot-running tale like “Humboldt” is a little more subtle than your typical weed anthem, or that “Byrd from West Virginia” doesn’t flinch from either Senator Robert Byrd’s racist past or the Hawks’ disdain for the Bush years (fittingly, the band’s own interpersonal politics are apparently far from synchronized).
The Hawks’ songs show the time and craft that went into them, and they can hold a sucker punch twist in tone or lyrics. There are worse afflictions if you’re a band, and if you’re writing good songs as the Hawks are doing, it’s usually just a matter of time before someone catches your live show or hears a song at the right moment, and the barriers come falling down.
But things are starting to pay off. A European tour treated the Hawks quite well, and stateside Americana stations are starting to play their songs. Shoulda Been Gold, then, comes at the perfect time. The 17 songs from throughout the band’s career provide a solid introduction to their lyrical bite, intelligence, humor, and sincerity. Several unreleased songs add to the comprehensive feel, especially since one of them (the original demo for “I See Hawks in L.A.”) is from the band’s very first on-the-fly recording session. “Sexy Vacation” leaps from a waterfall-like pedal steel intro into an upbeat lope and conflicted lyrics like “I wish I was a 19th century shepherd named Patrick, James, or Seamus / Yeah, I’d write you off but you’re good for too much material”. “Soul Power” manages to be both earthy and spacey as it asks, “release my body, release my soul, release my soul power till my soul’s out of control”.
Of the three new songs recorded for this disc, the brand new title track is especially impressive, overflowing with golden harmonies. David Allan Coe’s “Bossier City” (with Carla Olson, who also appears on the easygoing “Laissez Les Bon Temps Roulet”) rings with cold nights and loneliness. As for the previously released material, Gold boasts a solid cross-section of the band’s styles, from bluegrass to cosmic country to rock. Some fans might find it lacking in some of the Hawks’ goofier songs, such as the dueling Slashes tale of “Slash from Guns N’ Roses”, but as far as the band’s humorous material goes, they seem to have chosen songs like “Raised by Hippies” and “Humboldt” that also carry a payload of social commentary.
It’s a nice collection, and a strong introduction to a band that seems poised to finally break through. It certainly doesn’t help that the band-written liner notes are some of the best in recent memory, as they manage to convey the band’s growth and struggles as something like a waking dream, but with all-too-real historical and social backdrops keeping things in check. Or in their words, “The Hawks imagined an America post oil, fertilizer, and gated communities, and an American folk music with tendrils cracking concrete to reach people aware of the ground they stand on. And the craziest thing of all is we were convinced (and still pretty much are) that we could do it. The band name was a code, a question, a diffident invitation: if you see hawks, then maybe we should talk”.