Texas music, like Texas oil, is the result of sedimentary processes. Laid down over time, the constituent parts undergo a transformation, occasionally bubbling up to the surface or bursting forth as something potent, part of the landscape .
Think of the music of Lightnin' Hopkins, ZZ Top, Townes Van Zandt, Buddy Holly, 13th Floor Elevators or Willie Nelson; they're all different, all hugely influential, and yet all totally Texan. Quaker City Night Hawks, hailing from the Lone Star city of Fort Worth, started out as another talented and entertaining country rock band. Then, after a couple of low-key releases, something special happened. With their first recording for Nashville’s independent Lighting Rod records, El Astronauta, a damn-near perfect album, the band added to their mix a slew of 70's influences, including the funky rock of Aerosmith, the heads-down boogie of ZZ Top and the expansive psychedelia of Pink Floyd. Eschewing the traditional tropes of country rock lyrics, they embraced sci-fi themes and other-worldly tales, creating what is probably my favourite album of 2016. Now it's 2019, and the band are back with their new album, QCNH. So where to next for our intrepid explorers?
With QCNH, Quaker City Night Hawks once again deliver a fine collection of songs, building on their earlier sound, but expanding their colour palate even further. Things kick off with Better In The Morning, with its catchy, swinging, loose-rolling rhythm and a nagging hook that recalls the J Geils Band. There’s a lyrical nod to the supernatural subject matter of the previous album, but this time it is vampires frequenting the dive bar on the corner, "where the whiskey makes the blood so thin". Then things get decidedly funky with the strutting Suit In The Back - imagine Lynyrd Skynyrd down the disco, if you can - with Sam Anderson’s falsetto vocals occasionally edging towards modern R'n'B, it's got style and it's self-assured. The following track, Colorado, sees the vocals delivered by main QCNY singer David Matsler, taking us back to more familiar territory, but the music here might be associate more with the West Coast sound, rather than the Rocky Mountain state of the title. It's the kind of hazy, lazy sound that Californian studio maverick and uber-hippy Jonathan Wilson conjures up, with a lilting guitar line that could have been gently wept by George Harrison himself. More Californian influences are up next on Pay To Play, where Aaron Haynes’ intriguing drum-intro gives way to tight Eagles-like harmonies. It's a shiny, sun drenched sound that producer, ex-White Demin guitarist Austin Jenkins, conjured up with the band at his studio, Niles City Sound, and this tune wouldn't be out of place in a Balearic DJ set.
If all this sounds like the Night Hawks have left their rockin' roots far behind, fear not. In fact, they've brought some of them along from a previous album. Fox In the Henhouse was one of stand out tracks on an earlier album, Honcho. Clearly the band felt they had unfinished business with this one, but the newer version is not a million miles away from the one laid down in 2013, still greasy and ragged but sounding like it has been schooled by a million miles on the road. The rock is ratcheted up another notch with Hunters Moon, the heaviest track here. A headbanging gallop with Sabbath-style drums and swirling Hammond organ, this one would tick most boxes on any stoner rock fans check list. It would be nice to think that it takes some influence from original Fort Worth proto-metal act, Bloodrock.
A tongue-in-cheek nod to the lyrics from the Rolling Stones’ Sympathy For the Devil starts the cautionary tale of messianic war veteran Elijah Ramsey, although the music itself is more akin to the Chris Robinson Brotherhood, or late-era Black Crowes’ mellower moments. You can almost smell the joss sticks and incense burning as the track eventually gives way to a creeping analogue synthesiser arpeggio, leading into yet more psychedelia and atmospheric drums in the form of Grackle King. Unlike previous records, this album definitely feels like the band have been paying attention to some of their contemporaries. Jonathan Wilson is recalled once more, as well as Nashville psyche-rockers All Them Witches, and even fellow Texans, Midlake. Possibly, the only misstep on QCNH is the track Tired Of You Leaving, not a bad song in itself, with its intricate drum pattern and Sly Stone licks, but there's something about the overall sound that is too akin to the Acid Jazz vibe of the early 90s, and that just feels out of place in this selection of songs. The band gets back on track immediately, though, with the albums closer. Freedom is a stomper with a Pump-It-Up rhythm and the kind of bluster that reminds us how exciting the Kings Of Leon sounded, back before they were jaded by their own success.
All in all, then, this may not be as definitive or bold a creation as their last album, El Astronauta, with its laser-focused sound, but QCNH is packed full of great songs and is clearly the statement of a band still hungry and full of desire, needing to explore boundaries, drilling down deep, looking for that next oil strike.