Perhaps referring to "Rome" as an unexpected mid-?career renaissance for Ron Hawkins is a bit of a stretch.
After all, it's not like the guy's been slacking over the past decade. Between reunion shows with the Lowest of the Low and an inspired career as a one-man singer/songwriter tour de force – as best exemplified by the career-defining "10 Kinds of Lonely" and "Straightjacket Love" releases – Hawkins has made being a devout fan of his work a more than worthwhile endeavor.
Yet "Rome," the first release to be credited to Hawkins' new touring ensemble, the Do Good Assassins, represents significant growth from an artist who could have made a decent living by periodically revving up the Low engine for reunion gigs, and repeating the literate, incisive punk-folk of "10 Kinds of Lonely" ad infinitum. It's a brave, soulful and sprawling release, stuffed, naturally enough, with Hawkins' astute and elegant observations on life and love on the other side of the tracks, but also packed with the most moving lead vocals he's yet laid to tape.
Clearly inspired by the sound and style of his new band – comprised of guitarist Steve Singh, drummer Jesse Capon, cellist/keyboardist Alex McMaster and bassist Derrick Brady – Hawkins coughed up enough new songs to fill a double disc's space. Interestingly – and wisely, as it turns out – he and the band split those songs into a "Rock" and "Country" disc, though no one should be worrying that Hawkins is repositioning himself as some sort of jingo-spewing country crossover artist.
The "Rock" disc commences with the corker "Sadder Days," a jubilant, John Hiatt-like tune whose intentional reiteration of the chorus figure from Elton John's "Saturday Night's Alright For Fighting" doesn't mask the heartbreak at its core.
"Fire Alarm" is beautifully produced, a dense blend of hand claps, swapped verse lines between Hawkins and Singh, and a keyboard/horn section blend that suggests something off Bruce Springsteen's "Magic" album.
Singh offers his own "NYC vs. Jeffrey Brown," a lilting slab of power-pop depicting a friend's unfortunate encounter with an undercover member of the NYPD.
"Home Sweet Home" is perhaps the most devastating song in the Hawkins canon, its caffeinated punk strut pushing along a eulogy for a handful of the singer's departed friends. Hawkins avoids glossing over the truth with platitudes here, instead crafting the song's headlong flight to arrive at the killer concluding couplet, "It takes a village to raise a child/It takes a city to bury it alive." Strong stuff.
The "Country" disc arrives after all of this beautiful brutality like a gentle lover's caress, or at least a good stiff belt of whiskey. Here, Hawkins and the band construct spacious melodic landscapes, and the singer takes advantage of the supple implications of swing in the music to explore intimate melodic contours. Hawkins' voice has never sounded more resonant and emotive than it does here.
We've known Hawkins for a long time 'round these parts. What a wonderful surprise to learn that there's still much more to him than we might have thought.
– Jeff Miers
The Do Good Assassins
[DGACD]3 1/2 stars (out of 4)