Reinventions are rarely what they seem. More often than not, they are evolutions rather than rebirths; carefully cultivated identities that are achingly revealed rather than instantaneous metamorphoses. The former is most often the product of commercial pursuits, while the latter is nothing short of a precious miracle, akin to the slow, reactive unfolding of a day lily. Dameon Lee (née, Waggoner) might be better known for exploits as bassist for Southwestern punk luminaries Scared of Chaka than he is for the tender, country tinged songs he scattered across three albums as Lowlights, but, as Lee stressed following the first Lowlights release in 2003, this is a "side" of himself that always was—it just needed time to simmer before it could shimmer.
And shimmer it did, generating its own slow-‐burning heat that culminated in tours and showcases that, often enough, saw Lowlights sharing stages with Ian Moore, whose own evolution from blues guitar wunderkind to Americana devotee has been documented over a decade and a half of under appreciated recordings. The eventual pairing started innocently enough: Moore inviting Lee to cut some tracks at his Vashon Island studio. But the spark of collaboration was almost instantly ignited— probably smoldering long before Lee or Moore even realized it—and out came the guitars.
Former Scared of Chaka cohort and recent Shins alum Dave Hernandez was recruited to handle lead guitar duties, bringing with him bassist Drew Church (Little Cuts) and drummer Steven Barci to form the band whose debut you're listening to now ... presenting: The Jemez Mountain Hawkz ("J" pronounced as "H" for those not versed in Native pronunciation). Jemez is derived from a Tanoan Indian word, but doesn’t translate into the English. The natives there, however, call their pueblo Walatowa, which loosely means “the place,” replete with mystical undertones. All the mystery and sheer natural beauty of the place inform the Hawkz’ songs— penned chiefly by Lee, who knows the Jemez region quite well having grown up less than 60 miles away in Los Alamos and Chamisal, NM. The wide open spaces evoked in “The Long Ride Home,” the high lonesome guitar figure and Lee’s perfectly matched longing vocal that frame “CA-‐2,” the galloping, getting-‐away-‐from-‐you-‐as-‐ fast-‐as-‐I-‐can feel of “California Bound,” the hindsight heartache of “Summer’s Gone,” and the just-‐out-‐of-‐reach stark beauty of “Snow is Silver” are all infused with a certain Southwestern-‐flavored take on Americana that’s as unique as the environs themselves.
But it’s not just dirt-‐devils and tumbleweeds and ancient native culture having its way with the songs on the Hawkz’ debut EP. Lee has a knack for needling out the classic sounds of Laurel Canyon country rock circa ‘60s and ‘70s (Byrds, Neil Young, Gram Parsons) and weaving them into a musical tapestry fringed with bright ‘60s SoCal pop harmonies straight out of the Brian Wilson songbook, and laced with darker melodic hues that recall the vaunted, haunted jangle of the Mill Avenue Sound of the ‘90s (Sidewinders, Dead Hot Workshop, Gas Giants). As songwriting templates go, Lee’s latest discovery is about and rich and rewarding as they come.
And it pays off in spades across the five songs that make up the Hawkz’ eponymous EP.
Spacious and elegant, the Hawkz manage to combine the intangibles that turned the Summer of Love into an timeless sonic imprint that echoes in the hearts and minds of anyone who’s ever turned left their cares behind in favor of an FM car radio and an unknown Western destination. There’s a freedom in the Hawkz’ songs that may be unique to the California experience and the wide open expanses of desert that give New Mexico 90 percent of its identity, but it’s a sense of freedom that beckons whether the listener happens to be tuning in from the hustle and bustle of a megalopolis like New York or Chicago, or a Midwestern staple city like Toledo or Indianapolis.
The harmonic convergence happened upon by Lee and Co. one recent winter’s day off the northwest shores of Washington State are aptly captured here for your listening pleasure. And, with any luck, a van full of these California-‐dreamin’ boys might just pull into your town soon. It’ll be a magical moment you won’t want to miss.