Robert Rex Waller Jr.
See the Big Man Cry
Have Harmony, Will Travel
See the Big Man Cry is the second album from I See Hawks in L.A. frontman Robert Rex Waller Jr., who collaborated with Carla Olson to record this wide-ranging effort. The two have long sung together in shows around L.A. and each have appeared on the other’s albums. Interestingly, Waller has in the name in the credits for only one song here, and that’s as a co-writer with his Hawks bandmate Paul Marshall. In this largely covers project he experiments with other genres, mostly pop and rock. Fans of the Hawks, unfortunately, won’t hear much of that band’s sound to latch on to until the second half of the album which delves into the more familiar Americana and country sounds. The first half repertoire was largely assembled by Olson and A&R man Saul Davis. The latter comments, “If you like Raul Malo, Gene Pitney, or Randy Travis you will love this album. If you like the Cactus Blossoms, Jamestown Revival, or the Milk Carton Kids you will love this album.” Read into that what you will but it certainly suggests rich harmonies, orchestral backdrops, and throw-back rock. It’s not what one expects at the outset, but Waller’s rich baritone and the A-list group of musicians make it work surprisingly well. The songs also bear the common themes of love, loss, heartbreak, and resilience.
The supporting cast, besides Olson and Marshall, includes Hawks bandmate, guitarist Paul Lacques,, guitarist John York (The Byrds, Doug Sahm), drummer Benjamin Lecourt (The Wallflowers), keyboardist Skip Edwards (Dave Alvin, Dwight Yoakam), lap steel guitarist Stephen McCarthy (The Long Ryders, The Jayhawks), guitarists Mike Clinco and Mikal Reid, trumpeter Matt Von Roderick, strings from Kaitlin Wolfberg, and pedal steel players Marty Rifkin and JD Walter on the Freddie Hart tune “Easy Loving.” Harmony vocals come courtesy of Gia Ciambotti, Gregg Sutton, and Olson.
The lush, string and harmony vocals infused “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore” was a big hit for the Walker Brothers and was sung by Frankie Valli. That’s the starting point. The smooth running, steeped with harmonies “wall of sound” “Girl of My Dreams,” a hit by Bram Tchaikovsky, follows. We time travel back to the likes of Gene Pitney and Manfred Mann for the ballad “There’s No Living Without Your Loving,” a convincing vocal from Waller, bolstered by Ciambotti and Olson. “I’ll Never Dance Again” is Waller’s reading of the hit for Bobby Rydell with the backgrounds aboard as well as Von Roderick in the instrumental break. It’s as pure as pop gets.
Steeleye Span’s “Let Her Go Down” from their 1980 Sails of Silver signals a transition toward the roots side. The harmonies are gone with Edwards’ piano and Wolfberg’s violins carrying the primary instrumentation. Walter’s pedal steel brings us into authentic country for Freddie Hart’s “Easy Loving” as Hawks fans can get more comfortable. Springsteen’s “Tougher Than the Rest” gets a faithful reading, though not as gritty as the original but imbued by Olson on the harmony vocal. Two of country’s best songwriters, James Intveld and Gary Nicholson penned “A Woman’s Touch,” a clear standout and a made to order vocal for Waller with gorgeous pedal steel from Rifkin and teeming harmony again from Olson. The raveup “Amanda Ruth” was a hit for Rank & File, propelled here by guitarists McCarty and Lacques, with Edwards doubling on piano and organ.
“My Favorite Loneliness” is the Waller/Marshall co-write with the bassist singing along with Waller as Olson and York strum behind them with Wolfberg adding her strings to embellish the wistful feel. The title track was a hit for Charlie Louvin with Waller giving it an energetic reading with harmony vocals on the chorus. “Reconsider Me,” written by Margaret Lewis and Mira Ann Smith was most famously rendered by The Tan Canary, the late Johnny Adams, the soul/R&B singer from New Orleans who featured it on his Heart & Soul album. It takes some hutzpah to touch any song that Adams sung, so (can’t help it) but perhaps they should have reconsidered this one, which falls a little flat. Waller’s heartfelt rendition of Gene Clark’s “Gypsy Rider” does hit the mark, however, a mid-tempo ballad with Olson on guitar and harmony with tasty piano from Edwards supporting Waller in one of his strongest vocal takes.
Waller is to be commended for shunning the ‘same old, same old’ but in the final analysis, the country/roots songs make for a better fit.
- Jim Hynes
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