Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Hamell on Trial

  • Big as Life [Mercury, 1995] *
  • The Chord Is Mightier Than the Sword [Mercury, 1997] *
  • Choochtown [Such-a-Punch, 1999] B+
  • Ed's Not Dead--Hamell Comes Alive! [Such-a-Punch, 2000] ***
  • Tough Love [Righteous Babe, 2003] **
  • Songs for Parents Who Enjoy Drugs [Righteous Babe, 2006]  
  • Rant and Roll [Righteous Babe, 2008] A-
  • The Happiest Man in the World [New West, 2014] A-
  • Tackle Box [New West, 2017] A
  • The Night Guy at the Apocalypse: Profiles of a Rushing Midnight [Saustex, 2018] A
  • The Pandemic Songs [Saustex, 2020] A-

Consumer Guide Reviews:

Big as Life [Mercury, 1995]
gainfully employed enough to know what he and his amplified acoustic are pissed about ("Big as Life," "Z-Roxx") *

The Chord Is Mightier Than the Sword [Mercury, 1997]
more songs about jobs and saloons ("In a Bar," "Red Marty") *

Choochtown [Such-a-Punch, 1999]
Ed Hamell is a DIY folkie with a punky band who inhabits the sleazy corner where boonie bohemia meets pure low-life. Drugs can make that happen, as can marginal employment slipping toward petty crime. His pals Chooch and Joe Brush certainly don't read Hammett, maybe Elmore Leonard or Carl Hiaasen for the warm weather. I bet Hamell reads them all--and that along with talk TV, they've influenced his narrative poesy. B+

Ed's Not Dead--Hamell Comes Alive! [Such-a-Punch, 2000]
de facto best-of cum fine how-de-doo to you and several hordes of Ani DiFranco fans ("Sugarfree," "7 Seas") ***

Tough Love [Righteous Babe, 2003]
Say this for near-death experiences--they tune up the sensitivities ("Don't Kill," "Downs"). **

Songs for Parents Who Enjoy Drugs [Righteous Babe, 2006]
See: Ed's Not Dead.  

Rant and Roll [Righteous Babe, 2008]
Though the man aka Hamell on Trial wields a loud acoustic guitar, this document of his award-winning 2007 performance at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe is basically a comedy record. Sinking old, new, and previously unrecorded songs into monologues about pizza-faced pizza bosses and his kid's chance of getting hit by a car, he harangues, jokes around, and rocks out about "the terrorism of everyday life"--a theme epitomized for Hamell by the recent finding that oral sex increases the practitioner's susceptibility to cancer by 250 percent. He rarely bothers scoring political points because he figures his audience doesn't need them. Instead he expands on power's existential ramifications. The concert lasts 63 minutes; a truncated version pumped with sharp interviews and low-budget visual interpolations occupies a one-hour DVD. Comedy records wear out, and unless friends come over, you may not play this one much even if you love it the first time. But if my description makes you think you might love it, you will. A-

The Happiest Man in the World [New West, 2014]
Aside from the protest song itself, not a dud in 13, although the rock-and-rolling solo-acoustic leadoff "Artist in America"--"I fought the law and the law won, and my mailbox read Mr. Pitiful. Fulfilling the prophecy of the bad moon on the rise, I had lost my race with the devil, I was moaning at midnight, I was Mr. Dyingly Sad . . ."--does tend to blow the rest away. So listen up. The album rocks frantically even though there are drums on only two tracks. It includes five songs about the lowlifes he knows so intimately, including the title manifesto and the feminist "Jennifer's Strippin' Again." "Gods at Odds" is feminist, too--matrideistic, even. "Mom's Hot" features his son Detroit and lusts after women or a woman missing a total of one leg and one breast. A-

Tackle Box [New West, 2017]
From track one, which follows a snatch of you-know-who's "I'd like to punch him in the face" by promising Hamell's gang of misfits "You're safe here," to track 16, where the 62-year-old gets teary about a marriage eight years gone, this is an album I've been waiting for. Counting the lust song that quotes a mouthy Australian's anti-American analysis at length, only four tracks are explicitly "political," including a misfire aimed at bulletproof blankets. But "The More You Know," about raising a teenage son in the age of you-know-who, and the homely, specific, devastating "Not Aretha's Respect (Cops)," about "I'm trying to teach him to Not Get Shot," are the best protest songs yet by an antifolk ranter who's never soft-pedaled his militantly nonviolent anarchism. And I should also mention the four kiddie ditties about the life cycle of a cartoon frog--as you'll learn from the laff-riot live Big Mouth Strikes Again CD you can own if you buy the vinyl and stream if you don't, this mouthy touring machine has a G-rated set he'll serve up on request at folk festivals and other family affairs. Either way he'll say it loud, flail his 1937 Gibson, and rock as hard as The Clash. Randy Newman too subtle for ya? This ain't. A

The Night Guy at the Apocalypse: Profiles of a Rushing Midnight [Saustex, 2018]
Recorded live on his phone in venues hither and yon, these 13 low-life tales are different from all the other low-life tales the barfly with his stage name on the cover has peddled over the years. That's because they're enraged rather than merely sardonic, and also because 14 of these low-lifes die, often hideously. These include one commander-in-chief (it was the vodka, swear to God) and start with the five dispatched quatrain by quatrain in "Slap": a wife-beating cop, a foreclosure king, a Nazi fuck, a pedophile priest, and some lawyer or CEO or something whose smirk Bobby didn't like. Accompanied solely by Ed Hamell's trusty guitar and one boozy singalong, the minimal melodies of these brutal fantasies hit bone on the strength of the narrative punch he's honed over decades on the road--"I've gotta go from Iceland to Dublin," he notes at the close of "Melting Snow (Kill Them All)." That ominously subtitled selection adds no new stiffs to the death toll. It merely targets every stupid-as-shit hate-spewer now adding meanness to the world--starting, let's figure, with a commander-in-chief or something who inspired this Jeremiah-come-lately to spew his report from the fucking front. Which front, in case you hadn't noticed, is everywhere. A

The Pandemic Songs [Saustex, 2020]
This selection of nine of the voice-and-guitar pieces Hamell composed one a day over the two weeks preceding a home Facebook concert strikes quickest at its most comic: the opening "Gonna," which is short for "I'm gonna die," or the improvised "This Is a Hamell Show," which lists all the reasons a father in Finland shouldn't be imposing Hamell on eight-year-old Ruth ("Did I mention drugs yet?/I'm sure I will"). But they wouldn't mean much if "All the Things I Miss" and "My Little Camus" weren't so in love with life that they decline to joke around. Much. A-

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