Hamell on Trial
Hamell on Trial
When a band leaves a major label, its first independent release is usually just the band trying poorly, very poorly, to imitate that major label production. Sure, it's the same band, only now it doesn't have any money, and no label rep is there to hold their hands. It's gotta be hard trying to live up to those standards with only a few thousand to drop on the whole album. The hype usually whithers before the band has time to raise the dough to record. And, man, once that hype is gone, you're back on the club circuit opening up for the bands you thumbed your noses at on the way up. For years Hamell on Trial existed on that hype, especially after signing with Mercury Records who re-released his Doolittle Records debut Big as Life in 1995 and his major-label first-look The Chord is Mightier Than the Sword. Hype, coupled with a hearty word of mouth, drew crowds to see Ed Hamell. The rumor was this guy sounded like a full-band, playing fast and furious and putting the other bands to shame with only a microphone and the six strings on his 1937 small-body Gibson. The guy paced the stage, telling corny jokes between songs and heckling anyone in the audience who didn't clap or dared to talk or try to leave. At the end, he won the audience over, or at least they pretended so they wouldn't face his wrath.
At first the guy-and-guitar thing got him accused of being a folk musician. But, unless you're talking about Woody Guthrie's chronicles, folk music has nothing in common with Hamell on Trial. Like Guthrie, he's a story teller, drawing inspiration from his environment and examining it with brutal honesty laced with humor and irony. While working in a crack bar in New York, he met the characters featured on his upcoming self-released album Choochtown. They're drug dealers and common thugs, a girl who kills dealers with her boyfriend's strychnine-cut ashes, and a comedian so good Satan will beg God for tickets to the sold-out shows in heaven. He talks about them, then he tells stories in their voices. They address Hamell, making him another character in the story. Yes, boys and girls, this is a concept album, but the songs don't rely on each other as pieces needed to solve a great mystery. Each song carries itself.
Hamell's two Mercury Record releases seemed like postcards and snapshots left over from a great vacation. They were pretty and nice, but nothing compared to the real experience. The passion seemed drained, or at least covered under over-production and gimmicky techniques. Choochtown on the other hand is the album he's been playing live for years, but never made it into the studio. Maybe it's because he doesn't answer to a label anymore. Maybe it's because Hamell lived with the songs a year-and-a-half, recording at first with fancy equipment and then scrapping it to go incredibly lo-fi. The payoff is that the songs are left to survive on their own using his characteristic singing/talking style. The guitar is still there-wild yet controlled-but complemented by back-up vocals, saxophone, bass, and what sounds like the drum machine on a 1980s Casio keyboard. The extra instruments enhance the songs, but they're nothing that will be missed when he hits the stage with fingers flying across the frets. The hype is back, and better deserved than ever.
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