Robert Rex Waller Jr. Fancy Free. Western Seeds Record Company

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Singer and songwriter with I See Hawks In L.A., the seventies infused country rock band from, well, L.A., Waller has taken some time out to record his solo debut and it’s a mixed bag indeed. First off, it’s a collection of cover versions, always a tough nut to crack as it inevitably begs comparisons to the originals.  Secondly, Waller’s selection of songs to cover is somewhat eclectic, from The Doors and The Kinks to Willie Nelson and Daniel Johnston which does add some variety to the album but hardly makes for a cohesive listen. It’s truly a curate’s egg of an album, parts of it are exceedingly good while others not so.

Waller’s fine baritone voice is a mainstay throughout, no real surprise there and his players (including members of I See Hawks) are all on fine form and he opens the album with an excellent performance on his cover of Utah Phillips’ Walking through Your Town In The Snow. Waller gives this hobo’s lament a fine and sweet countrified facelift with Nora Germain excelling on her violin solo while producer Marc Doten’s piano recalls Floyd Cramer. It’s a grand opening statement and the standout number here; an album of songs such as this would be tasty indeed. Instead Waller wanders around with the album becoming something of a pic’n’mix selection.

On the plus side Mike Stinson’s Counting My Lucky Stars approaches the excellence of the opening number while the cover of Robert Ahlert’s Don’t You Pay Them No Mind, a song associated with Nina Simone is similarly transformed into a country styled tear jerker. It’s clear that Waller is comfortable with this style and the songs are comfortable in their mild country rock settings. When he tackles a real country song as on Willie Nelson’s Me and Paul he does so with an outlaw gusto that’s pretty good but then halfway through a synthesiser lights up and then buzzes around like a confused bee for the remainder of the song. Quirky.

The pic’n’mix approach is more pronounced on the more familiar songs. Neil Young’s Albuquerque is hefty but lacks the raw emotion of the original.  The Kinks’ Waterloo Sunset ambles along finely with a nice saloon bar piano ambience and Daniel Johnston’s Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Your Grievances is pumped up as the band come across like NRBQ. Less successful are the versions of Dylan’s She Belongs To Me which has little of the sinuous curves of the original, The Doors Crystal Ship, a song that really should have been best left alone while Albert Hammond’s The Air That I Breathe is cluttered and overblown and not a patch on Phil Everly’s rendition or even that of The Hollies. The title song of the album meanwhile is a cover of an Oak Ridge Boys song which to my mind wasn’t particularly interesting to start with but here it’s performed as a faux calypso number reminiscent of Jimmy Buffet.

It’s 50/50 here as to whether the album is a keeper. However, I’m sure that fans of I See Hawks In L.A. will be keen to check it out and I’ll be programming the better songs for repeat listenings as they are very good indeed. Waller himself talks about the song selections here along with memories of his late mother to whom the album is dedicated.

 

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