Joby Fox began his musical career as a member of Belfast post-punk band The Bankrobbers, who released material on the legendary Terri Hooley’s Good Vibrations label. Musicians have to grow and change, obviously, and it’s impossible to remain angry at the world for a lifetime; but, that said, Fox’s 2023 solo album ‘I Once Was A Hawk, Now I’m A Dove’ is as different from his formative years as it’s possible to be. It doesn’t even align with his work as a member of Irish pop-rockers Energy Orchard. The album shares a soft, after hours vibe which, used to power songs which stylistically straddle folk, pop and jazz, makes it fit almost into an easy listening bracket. This is by no means a criticism; the laid back moods are perfect for Fox’s voice, which is just one of the record’s many strengths.
What is clear, even after just one listen, is that the album’s nine tracks have a strong lyrical core. Whether Fox is pouring out his heart in a simple manner on ‘I Love You’ – an acoustically driven love song that wears its heart on its sleeve to the intended recipient – or reaching for bigger notes on ‘Angels Fly’ – a track that sounds like an old Duncan Sheik number augmented by a Celtic melody – his older sounding voice is able to breathe life into his words. And when those words have a simple and relatable quality that makes his best writing hit the listener in the most direct way, it all works.
One of the stand out cuts, ‘I Thought I Knew You’ offers one of the most stripped down arrangements. Opening with just voice and piano, it sounds like a jazzier take on 70s singer songwriter moods, and Fox’s affinity for an easy listening approach is very obvious. Adopting a slightly smoky voice, his performance glides easily over the piano, before the other instruments arrive in a gradual manner. The upright bass adds warmth; a simple drum part holds together a great rhythm, and as the song unfolds, the vocal adds very soulful edge to the track. Although every part of this number is almost perfect for the style, Fox is in danger of upstaging one of his best vocal takes with a perfectly executed guitar solo where a late night jazz tone re-awakens the ghost of Grant Green. In terms of pop and soul inflected easy jazz material, this is very strong indeed.
Equally good, if not better, the aforementioned ‘Angels Fly’ really shows off Fox’s gift for an easy melody. The opening strums bring out a wonderfully live sounding acoustic guitar, but its the soft drums and light jazz bass that really stand out, musically, whilst the lead vocal comes forth with a beautiful clarity. Bringing in a few intermittent strings adds a wonderful sense of colour to an old sounding adult pop number, and their slightly Celtic lilt works really nicely within a violin melody that could be culled straight from one of The Corrs’ earlier singles. ‘I Took A Walk’ conveys a similar softness, but applies a light waltzing time signature. This makes a shift from guitar to piano feel incredibly natural, and as you’d expect, the quiet bar-room feel is just perfect for one of Joby’s breathier vocals. Lyrically, the performer taps into something very touching as he recounts a world of lost love, a garden and “unexplained feelings”, regarding sentiments that are still strongly felt. Also, by leaving the arrangement open ended, and having his last vocal paean drift, unaccompanied, into silence, it becomes especially touching.
‘Falling’ goes even deeper into jazz via an intro that shares the sound of an upright bass attempting to anchor an errant piano. The way the notes glide at first gives off a hint of McCoy Tyner, but as the track gains momentum, the melodic jazz undertones work brilliantly in tandem with a timeless sounding soul-pop melody. Even once the tune breaks into something more commercial – a melody that would, perhaps, suit someone like James Morrison – the bass work continues to sound great. With the help of a strong vocal hook and strident piano solo, this MOR-pop tune isn’t just a great vehicle for Fox’s slightly smoky voice, it lends this album something that might just connect with a more commercially minded audience. It’s interesting how, considering its origins suggest something a little more experimental, it’s actually one of the record’s most accessible tracks. If nothing else, it shows how Fox’s approach to different mature styles aren’t just about basic melodies and heartfelt lyrics; this album is also richly layered, arrangement wise, with the ability to present something new to the listener during those all important first few plays.
With ‘No Home’ offering a set of solid piano chords and booming vocal, it’s more than possible to detect a touch of folk bleeding through the heart of the track. The main melody sounds like a twist on a traditional tune, albeit stretched for dramatic effect, and the underlying piano is merely there to guide an ever-growing vocal to its ultimate goal. In this case, that appears to be massive wordless howl at the point where a once faint melody crashes forth to a bigger sound, but within seconds of such a dramatic turn, Fox retreats to quietness, repeating the tune’s opening melodies. In relation to the rest of the album, this is far more of a slow burner. It’s grand in the way it leaves the performer with little to hide behind, but it’s unlikely to appeal to anyone unsure of his voice, and even those who’ve taken to Fox rather quickly with the help of ‘Angels Fly’ and ‘Falling’ might even find this more of a mood piece than a preferred listen. That isn’t to say it’s filler in any way; quite the opposite in fact, but you certainly shouldn’t expect to love this tune immediately.
Elsewhere, ‘Don’t Come To My Rescue’ shares another soft folk/jazz melody which, driven by male/female harmonies and a superb electric piano, sounds like an unlikely hybrid of a couple of Once Blue numbers and ‘Memphis’ by Aussie adult pop sensations The Badloves; ‘This World Is Crazy’ shifts effortlessly into a blend of lounge jazz and perfect soul-tinged vocals – taking Joby’s easy listening edge to its most logical extreme – and the six minute ‘Dream On’ taps into a lovely acoustic shuffle, becoming a strong but basic vehicle for another effortless vocal take. Even though these tracks could be considered “second tier” when measured against a couple of highlights, each one adds something enjoyable to an already enjoyable album, with each track further casting a light onto a man with a great voice.
The way ‘I Once Was A Hawk…’ blends classic singer songwriter fare with elements of pop and smooth jazz makes it one of those albums that’s best suited for evening listening. Fox’s talents aren’t always the most original, but throughout this record, he shares a musical ability that shines brightly, and in an almost timeless way. It’s a record that’s well worth checking out for ‘Angels Fly’, ‘Falling’ and ‘I Thought I Knew You’, but in all honesty, you won’t find any weak links here. In terms of “adult listening”, this is an unexpected gem.