An album of leaving and staying, of coming and going, of loving and longing, and the wonderful happenstances of life. "Sorta Kinda Maybe" - the fourth album by the Virginia-based Andy Hawk & The Train Wreck Endings - is a happy-sounding mish-mash of rock, pop, blues, and roots music, but it's held together with a string of lyrics that evoke the heaviness and desperation of striking out on a new path, and the longing, randomness, and freedom of the road.
The ambitious 12-song album, which includes an 8-song bonus disc, ultimately depicts the pain and beauty of being alive. It's joyous and sad and everything between - a perfect road album.
The road is a potent myth in America, and much of this album reflects a Kerouac-like yearning for what's ahead, with the knowledge that what's left behind will be sorely missed. Hawk's lyrics are playful and earnest at the same time, and his characters inhabit a world in constant flux where movement is the only certainty. The road isn't easy, but it offers something that fills a great American need for someplace else.
John Steinbeck wrote in his road story "Travels with Charlie": "I saw in their eyes something I was to see over and over in every part of the nation - a burning desire to go, to move, to get under way, anyplace, away from any here. They spoke quietly of how they wanted to go someday, to move about, free and unanchored, not toward something, but away from something. I saw this look and heard this yearning everywhere in every state I visited."
This LP's title track reflects the scattered wonder of life's many perspectives: "Masquerades / a twisted phrase / the strangest things turn into facts / a story true but not exact."
Truth, indeed, is not always an absolute. It is in the eye of the beholder. Jesse Black provides soaring harmonies around a track that sounds like vintage R.E.M. with a little psychedelic '60s thrown in for good measure, thanks to Pascal Nasta's groovy drums.
"Strawberry Smile", the first single from the album, changes the narrator's life with a chance meeting in the California desert: "She rolled her window down with elegant fingers / let out a laugh like bubble gum / she asked directions, I set the course / then I forgot where I came from."
He sees his chance and figures, why not? Fate gets a nudge from his opportunistic ideas: "She said,'I thought I'd take a drive out to the Salton Sea / I don't fit in here in Palm Springs' / I claimed coincidence, 'I'm headed there myself / I heard it looks like bathtub ring."
Our hero essentially altered the course of his life with one "what the hell" moment. The fact that the Salton Sea is a dying, stinking, man-made, ex-resort probably piqued his interest as much as our strawberry-smiled girl did. Told to a two-chord toe-tapping rhythm, this story puts you in the car to witness an instant connection and a tale that'll last a lifetime, even if this is their only day together. There's an interesting outro as well, that shifts into a gear reminiscent of the end of The Beatles "Hello, Goodbye."
Birds and butterflies reinforce the floaty road show, as they appear more than once in the thread of the songs. "Blackbird on a lonely wire was waiting, but my mind was gone," Hawk writes on "Letting Go", a tune co-written with bassist Chuck Bordelon. The leaving is difficult but necessary, although he asks, "Ever get the feeling you're driving away / from all you know? / the rear-view tears at you / the pull of the undertow / and the people recede into the too huge world in calico / and you know it's time for letting go."
It's like the Sunday-morning leaving: You're on your way, but you linger in the awkward space between staying and going.
"Letting Go" has beautiful harmonies and piano, courtesy of California musician Adam Marsland - ex of Cockeyed Ghost - who captured the song's melancholy perfectly. Bordelon adds a surprisingly bubbly bass line to the ballad, which suggests that although it's sad to be going, it's also exciting to be on your way.
Later, the dreamy "Thoughts While Driving Home" talks of "butterflies and gravestones," and album closer, the quirky "Painted Sky" asks a girl to "give me a sign, a butterfly / oh my / drifting through my painted sky." More randomness and the beauty of going where the wind (or the girl) takes you.
Marsland's piano work on "Painted Sky" is spot-on, capturing the vaudevillian, circus-like atmosphere of a down-on-his-luck man at a horse track who lets a free-spirited woman - again - change the course of his life as she closes her eyes and places a finger on the next race's ultimate winner. He wins by letting go of his black-and-white worldview. It's a terrific track to end the album, as it brings the "Sorta Kinda Maybe" theme back into the loop on the way out of the old town and on the way into a new one.
There's humor in all this dice-rolling, too. "Next Best Man" is a break-up story told with a smirk. "She pulled outside the house / in a brand-new moving van / driven by some caveman / she said, 'Baby, meet my next best man / I'll take the bank accounts / you keep the '88 sedan / I'll be out in Spokane / so, bye, bye, baby, you're the next best man."
Well, by the time the song ends, he's already chatting up someone else: "I might not be name-brand / I might be Peter Pan / might be second-hand / but you might like the next best man."
This bluesy tune features funky percussion tracks, including someone banging on an empty gas tank that emits a caveman-like grunting sound, and a smoking lead guitar solo by Paul Bordelon that seems inspired by the Georgia Satellites. Bordelon also adds a terrifically weird intro to the song that sounds like a UFO landing. And why not, since this album darts all over the country like a bunch of aliens eavesdropping into the lives of everyday Americans.
Next is Paul Bordelon and Hawk's collaboration on "Rum Talking", a boozy bit of funk that pokes fun at "weekend hippies" who seem to have littered trash cans all over the world with failed novels and tie-dye dreams, only to punch back in the next work week in their "clip-on Monday tie / a novel in a trash bin / crumbled up with sighs."
Lisa Fiorilli's beautifully rendered sax accompaniment spices "Written on the Road" with a perfect splash of longing. Another song about heading out of town, the narrator says, "I breathe the beaten air, and leave for anywhere but here." The ballad lets us reflect for a moment before we take off on another wild ride.
"Stories That We Tell" follows our guy waking up "drunk and early / in the Chalk-Outline Motel," not sure exactly who his companion is or where they ended up. He apparently told some whoppers along the way, too: "I asked her, 'Am I still in New York City?' / she asked me when I joined the NFL / I said I had a game that day in Cleveland / oh, the stories that we tell." This chunky, guitar-driven piece of rock-n-roll has a seedy feel and complements the lyrics nicely.
Our drunken lad also told his girl that he was once in The Beatles, and she doesn't call him on it: "She said I looked too young to be a Beatle / I thanked her for the compliment / I told her Rubber Soul was mostly my songs / she never asked for any evidence." That line ends with a clever, "beep, beep, n, beep, beep," a reference to "Drive My Car", which opens Rubber Soul.
"Never out of Place" follows and captures the exhilaration and earnestness of being young. Based on Stephen Chbosky's novel "The Perks of Being a Wallflower", this song was written in 2001 when Hawk spent a month alone in Nashville, playing when he could and writing for his sanity. It's a slice of '70s rock at its best, with wonderful backing vocals from Nancy Griffith-Cochran, whose singing blends well with Hawk's gravel-road voice. She - along with Black - gives the album an extra bit of intricacy that strengthens the entire collection. Chuck Bordelon's lovely bass line solo helps us wave the couple into the future.
Chuck wrote a catchy, frantic tune with an '80s feel and Hawk penned words that turned it into "Midnight Run", which picks up where its predecessor left us and encapsulates the classic youthful, summertime love affair - a vacation spark that explodes in intensity partly over the time constraints real life puts on most getaways. "I saw you in the neon night / shining brightly / it was June and 17 / who could fight it?" This song is every stolen kiss under the boardwalk or on top of the Ferris wheel - intense, memorable, and over way too quickly.
Song number 11 of the 12 is the one that actually seems to sum up the entire package. Musically, "Everywhere & Everything" sounds like it came from the Johnny Cash songbook - although, I'd suggest also checking out the Ramones-inspired version of the same song on the bonus disc, which proves a great song sounds good in more than one genre - and its words again speak of life's strange twists and of wanting to experience all of it. "You ask me where I want to go / you ask me what I want to know / you ask me what I want to sing / everywhere and everything."
The bonus disc is full of songs that might well have fit on the CD proper, but for one reason or another, they end up here, which makes it a nice 8-song disc of its own.
Highlights include the bluesy "From the Word Go"; another driven by Marsland's piano, called "Afterthoughts"; the Dylanesque "The Speakeasy (in Revere)", a ballad about a real bar in Revere, Mass., that depicts the devastation of spinning your wheels; and "Watercolor in the Rain", a great tune that builds from Chris Stoudt's naked piano to a full-blown band rock out.
There's also a wisp of old Train Wreck Ending, Steve DeVries, who left the band in 2011 with a move to Texas. DeVries was a versatile performer, and "Lovely Light", left off last year's "Another Storyline" - showcases his diversity, as he plays mandolin, banjo, harmonica, acoustic guitar, and adds backing vocals for good measure. A good note to leave on at any rate.
Partially funded by fan sponsorships, this album is professionally done but loses none of the band's live energy. Mixed partly by Hawk at his home studio, the album also features mixing from Pat Schneider of Stairway East Recording Studio in Manassas. He has a nice feel for the band's style. The album was mastered by the legendary Jerry Tubb at Terra Nova Digital Audio in Austin, and that's the icing on the cake.
This is the best album I've heard in quite a few years. These guys will eventually be more well-known. You should get this one and appreciate the terrific songwriting and performances. This band has the songs. That's one thing in this whole package that doesn't live in the gray areas; it's a fact.
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