In 2016, Robert Rex Waller released his solo debut ‘Fancy Free’. On that record, the sometime collaborator with I See Hawks In L.A. put his own stamp on a well curated selection of cover tunes, often with mixed results. Great versions of Neil Young’s often overlooked ‘Albuquerque’ and Dylan’s ‘She Belongs To Me’ gave the album an easily approachable core, whilst a drastically reworked version of The Doors’ ‘Crystal Ship’ showed how Waller was unafraid of rebuilding material from the ground up. Even when the material that wasn’t quite as interesting, showed off a man with a rich voice. The album certainly could have done without the misjudged version of ‘Waterloo Sunset’, but the good often outweighed the bad.
His second selection of solo recordings, captured on the Carla Olson produced ‘See The Big Man Cry’, takes a similarly grand approach to covering other people’s songs. As before, this is never a hacked out stop-gap release. With a few warm sounding arrangements, a couple of fairly mopey ballads, some strong links to a country music past and – not least of all – a couple of tunes drawn from unexpected sources, it’s a pleasingly varied journey through Waller’s collective inspirations and influences. It’s fair to say that it’s another uneven record, but much like it’s predecessor, it aims to entertain a broad range of Americana buffs.
An instant standout, Waller’s take on Bram Tchaikovsky’s ‘Girl of My Dreams’ finds a sweet spot by adding a slight country pop edge to an old power pop tune, making for something much perkier than most of the debut ever suggested. As you’d expect for a man previously associated with The Motors, Tchaikovsky’s tune sometimes sounds like a Nick Lowe or Dave Edmunds cast-off, but to dismiss it as such would do this recording a massive disservice. Waller’s natural vocal glides along with the upbeat tune, whilst a huge piano sound often dominates, but the best moments come courtesy of a swirling organ and an Americana themed lead guitar break where slide guitar notes add some rootsiness to some great pop-rock. It’s great to hear Waller in a positive mood, but – as expected – he’ll counter these feel-good vibes elsewhere. On another unexpected pick, Waller wraps his country inflections around Steeleye Span’s ‘Let Her Go Down’, which has been reworked into a heartfelt country number without losing too much of the folky lilt in the main melody. With a story-telling angle at the track’s centre, the rich voice really sells the horror story of drowning sailors, creating another album highlight along the way. Although the decision to present a guitar solo in the tone of the ‘Crossroads’ theme tune proves a little distracting at first, it doesn’t derail what’s essentially one of this album’s best covers, and it’s fair to say that Waller’s voice on this runs rings around Peter Knight’s efforts on the original recording.
Also very good, a take on Springsteen’s thoughtful ‘Tougher Than The Rest’ finds Waller taking The Boss in his stride and amplifying the track’s gentle country melody. The recording here has a bigger piano sound which really suits the ambling tune, whilst an understated accordion compliments a great vocal, before a deep twangy guitar solo tips its hat deftly to a world of older country performers. When heard in this slightly rootsier way, it’s a great insight into how one of rock’s most legendary figures can turn his hand to a country song with ease. Taking a tougher stance, a rousing version of Rank & File’s ‘Amanda Ruth’ puts the rock into country rock by pushing some very 60s sounding guitars to the fore on a tune that almost seems to cling onto a rock ‘n’ roll spirit. The end result sounds like Waller channelling The Fabulous Thunderbirds, and it’s great fun. It’s a good fit for the album too, since songwriter Chip Kinman played a big musical role on ‘Fancy Free’ all those years ago. At the other end of the scale, the stripped back ‘Gypsy Rider’ – on loan from the Gene Clark catalogue – casts the vocalist in a role that makes him sound like Jackson Browne on a massive downer, but as you might expect from Waller’s ability to deliver all kinds of country with ease, his smoother vocals sound great throughout.
Predictably, there’s a dose of old very country here, too, and ‘A Woman’s Touch’ (written by James Intveld) mixes some old fashioned ideas about a woman’s place with a crying steel guitar and a soft rhythm. Often sounding like all manner of hat wearers from the late 70s, the tune could never be called fashionable in the country stakes of 2023, but it’s nicely played, and with a warm and inviting sound in hand, Rob’s voice adopts the perfect sad croon to fit. The title cut fits the barstool heartbreak mould, with a lolloping rhythm guiding a tune through various scenarios of self-pity, but as with ‘A Woman’s Touch’, it’s easy to hear why Waller would have chosen to cover this, since the syrupy melody suits his rich vocal tones, and it provides another great showcase for the mournful steel guitar work used as a crying counterpoint throughout. It’s not the album’s best tune by a long chalk, but it’s okay for the style, even though it’ll be unlikely to win over any unsure listeners. Still, that’s potentially better than Rob crooning through ‘Reconsider Me’, which arguably takes the trad country mood a bit too far. It’s only a sidestep from this to Don Gibson’s ‘Oh Lonesome Me’, and there’s no excuse for that – not even if you’re Neil Young. Naturally, if you have no time for trad country fare, these tunes will leave you largely unmoved, but as always with a Waller LP, there’s always something more interesting to be found elsewhere.
In this case, you’ll stumble upon a full hearted rendition of The Walker Brothers’ ‘The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore’ which, like the Springsteen cut, is geared towards a smooth sound and a great voice, and an equally impressive ‘There’s No Living Without Your Loving’ that allows Rob to take the old Gene Pitney tune and adapt it for a warm sounding piece of light country pop that shows off his assembled band in the best possible way. The marriage of slightly twangy guitar and deep piano work gives a real heart to the recording, and a stately rhythm section gives off an old Brill Building vibe. It’s all rather nice, and that’s before the vocals reach for a few bigger notes. Obviously, Waller is no Pitney, but he more than holds his own here.
As with the first covers record, when ‘See The Big Man Cry’ is good, it’s very good. When it isn’t, you might find yourself raising a quizzical eyebrow, but at least those potential misfires have still made some kind of impression. What is clear, though, is that Waller’s choice of material is almost always strong, and his voice remains a rich and deep well of sound throughout. In the hands of such a natural performer, even when the recordings don’t work out, this album often offers something worth hearing. This is definitely another collection of songs to be cherry picked for best results, but there’s more than enough here for fans of ‘Fancy Free’ to come for a long overdue second helping.