Ron Hawkins is a preeminent Canadian writer, well known for his lyrics and music. His newest album, “246,” with the Do Good Assassins, will most certainly add to his canon. Thematically, the lyrics on “246” are meant to rev up the engine again, take on the challenges in a new world and reflect on the fates and circumstances of the various characters inhabiting these tracks. Whether drawn from imagination or history, their stories stand tall and Hawkins is a born storyteller. With their striking sense of passion and urgency, songs like these reverberate and careen inside and around our fading sense of hope and faith.
“246” is about two things: Spirit and Authenticity. Four musicians grinding it out in a small room, getting all that oversaturated sound into an analog machine, but still telling stories straight and true. The analog machine in question is a 1985 246 Tascam compact cassette recorder. Six inputs bounced and mixed down onto 4-track cassette – it doesn’t get much more old school! This is pure ‘Do It Yourself’ determination. Tascam machines weren’t exactly inexpensive but they allowed records to be made, that the big studios and their corporate masters could not – immediate, reckless, and bold.
The irony of an analogue recording invading the 2020 digital streaming audio landscape is inescapable, but Hawkins and his bandmates are sending out some serious dispatches. Old school for new ears! Or as Hawkins clearly states in “Teenage Insurrection,” the opening “call to arms” – “Every idle minute is a murdered one / ‘Cause when hesitation’s the bullet, procrastination’s the gun.” It may not be hard to hear the message, but it sure is hard to take action. Although Hawkins tackles this ennui as part of his central argument in the following ten pieces, he is definitely shouting from the rooftops: “People, listen to this! / Your heart is a muscle / And it’s as big as your fist! / When people rise and persist / Love is a struggle too hard to resist” (“Heartbreak in Hopper Street”).
First off, the album sounds great – warm and yet raw, gritty, dense, saturated, and immediate, each instrument sitting balanced and hot under the lead vocals and harmonies. They must have been pushing the needles, but the overall catch of a band blasting away together in a small room is refreshing and fun. Joining Hawkins (guitars, keys, vocals) are The Do Good Assassins: Jody Brumell (drums), Lee Rose (bass), and Stuart Cameron (guitar), and they rock! Some horns and other accoutrements were added in post, to augment the band, but overall it’s the four musicians, interacting and supporting each other, making the album SO GOOD.
Following “Teenage Insurrection,” the band breaks into “Midway,” a whipsaw radio rocker, lamenting the situation many find themselves ensnared in: “I’m midway from here to nowhere / This trail of tears is all we have / To lead us back / To lead us back.” These opening three pieces lay out the need to reenergize, the dilemma facing action and the hope to hold on, as outlined in “Atomic Rollercoaster” – in fact, this trilogy makes the same repeated request – do something!
“Up To Yer Neck” is the first of several portraits on this recording to introduce troubled characters, perhaps reflecting the need for change or not. Are all of us just fugitives of fate? Hawkins is powerfully influenced and gifted with an ability to see into the inner workings of his heroes. Of course this comes in part from his talents as a portrait painter and videographer, with “Genevieve” and “Rio” offering similar examples of this style of writing.
“Heartbreak in Hopper Street” presents the strongest element of the insurgency Hawkins and his band called for in the opening tune. A powerful anthem, which to quote Hawkins, “Is about collective power. All power to the people. The kind of grass roots uprising that we need to get some real change in this world and to topple a status quo that is only interested in dehumanizing us and maximizing profits.” Thus called action, it remains up to listeners to find their own path toward a collective uprising.
The final two songs on “246” add deep resonance and gravity to this memorable collection. “Baby Fell Hard” feels very personal, crafted so lovingly, with such inventive phrasing and inverse rhymes, it’s magnetically emotional pull leaves a listener shaken by it realism: “And ain’t you heard? / Baby got burned / Cause Judas got turned by the hissing tongues of Rome / And it’s hard to roam / But it’s so much harder to come home / When their hearts are hardened to cut stone / They’re hardly alone.” Ending with “Love Is A Poison Thing” almost seems to deplete the energy he began with, the trajectory spent and depressed. Hawkins shrewdly summarizes the themes from the preceding pieces – reintroducing imagery and metaphors previously sung. There is a reason to end this way. Listen closely and you will understand.
A veteran of the Toronto music scene, Ron Hawkins continues to blaze a trail with his solo and collaborative band outings. It is hard to imagine where he will bring his talents to bear next, but rest assured it will be revelatory and exhilarating.