It would be safe to say that letters from your creditors are more threatening than some bald dude with an acoustic guitar. Some downcast misanthrope crooning stories over folk chords is hardly what anybody might call a menace. Well, Ed Hamell is the exception. With a ’tude rooted in punk and a hair-singeing wit, Hamell is, in short, a leading light of an anti-folk movement (see Moldy Peaches, Lach) seeking to distance itself from well-mothered, dime-a-dozen singer/songwriters (see Howe Day).
Live, the glabrous-headed Hamell hammers his strings with intensity reserved for mass murderers in music therapy classes. His lyrical rhetoric is equally unsparing: “Hey, you, everybody knows you’re a drug dealer, you fool no one. Your poor wife is laughing and making a brave face to her family and friends and she’s going to get the kids taken away. Go fuck yourself,” sings Hamell on “Go Fuck Yourself” from his 2001 album, Choochtown.
“‘Go Fuck Yourself,’ I caught a lot of shit for that, but I thought, right-wing Christians really think the same thing,” Hamell explains. “I’m saying ‘go fuck yourself’ to all these despicable people. We have different ways of saying it, admittedly, but I have a lot of parallel views with the Christian right. They come to my shows, and we all have our jobs to do. My job is to fuck with them, and their job is to forgive me. As long as we do our jobs, we’ll get along fine.”
In short, Hamell’s an articulate social critic/songsmith whose fascination with the lowlife — grifters, drug dealers and fallen women — recalls hard-boiled writers such as Jim Thompson, David Goodis and Raymond Chandler. Take, for example, the title track of his new album Tough Love, a tune that traces with precision a Bonnie and Clyde-styled cross-country shooting spree. Or the darkly comic “When Destiny Calls,” which features a dead capo, stolen coke, and more double-crosses than The Big Sleep. On the droll album-opener “Don’t Kill,” Hamill plays God talking to his Christian minions, singing, “Was it the shalt not part that confused you? Shalt not means don’t.”
Well into his 30s, Hamell played in bands for years without much luck. Once, while between bands, he debuted solo at a benefit for a photographer friend stricken with cancer. He dubbed himself Hamell on Trial since he knew all the locals would be out, scrutinizing him in this new role.
Remarkably, Hamell received his first record offer at that solo show. The little indie Blue Wave Records put out his 1989 album Conviction. While the debut was recorded with a backing trio, the songwriter resolved thereafter to go it alone, and moved to Albany, N.Y., where he scored a weekly café gig. After some false starts, Hamell developed his current stage persona mixing gallows humor and frequent audience asides, energetic harangues and the aggressive playing style he cites as “my compensating for not having a drummer or a bass player.”
Later he lucked onto a deal with Mercury (“no one was more surprised to be on a major label than me”), which fizzled after two albums (1996’s Big Life and 1997’s The Chord is Mightier Than the Sword). But he followed those up with Choochtown, an album that, paradoxically, put him on the map — winning bubbly reviews and frothy fans throughout Europe.
Hamell says his passion for society’s underside comes from growing up in the largely blue-collar town of Syracuse, N.Y., and working at a local “crack bar.” Hamell developed friendships with many of the bar’s seedier types, who appear — as themselves, he claims — in many of his songs.
“I love those guys. I trust those guys infinitely more than I do most people,” Hamell confesses. “I [like] people that are skeptical and caustic, like when I was in high school. … I was always skeptical of the cheerleader types. They seemed fraudulent in some way. Plus [those people] are always funnier. Most of my criminal friends could kill me. All of them were really funny, and levity is very important, you know, in the world today.”
As a man who closely identifies with the “blue-collar, post-industrial” thing, Hamell is looking forward to his Motor City show. He says he’s in love with our musical heritage. So much so that he and his wife named their 2-year-old, of all things, Detroit.
While admittedly not a political beast, Hamell asserts that his music does carry a message of sorts. “Someone asked me, ‘What does your philosophy boil down to?’ and I’d never been asked that. Spontaneously, I came up with, ‘Don’t be an asshole.’ That’s my creed, my motto for everyone. What’s your politics globally? Don’t be an asshole.”
That’s the beauty of Hamell on Trial: Unabashedly blunt and to the point, dispensing words to live by.
Hamell on Trial will perform Tuesday, Nov. 25, at the Ark (316 S. Main, Ann Arbor) with the Long Hairz Collective. The show is free. Call 734-761-1451.Chris Parker is a freelance writer. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org