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Hamell On Trial | Tough Love (Righteous Babe)
For his first studio release since 2000's breakthrough 'Choochtown', Hamell On Trial returns with an album that's alternately facile, frustrating and occasionally fucking brilliant.
Some of this is to do with the use of three independent producers and some to do with the quality of the material itself. Hamell on Trial has always been a strange proposition, there's something artless about his music, something almost amateur and yet at times it all clicks and the rage and bellicosity are sublimated into a gattling gun torrent of narrative that wipes the floor with most contemporary songwriting.
This album is no different. It begins abominably, with two of the four John Leckie produced tracks and they sound pretty horrible. If you know Leckie you know what I mean. Luckily these songs can be skipped, especially the opener Don't Kill which falls into the lacuna of simplistic moralizing and emotional fascism that has been the hallmark of the anti-war movement. You just want to shout at him: 'Grow Up!' But then on the third (self-produced) track things change. When Destiny Calls is a wonderful alliterative, rhythm-bounced spew of narrative detailing a failed kidnapping, the discovery of thirteen kilos of cocaine in a stolen car and the subsequent brutal and bloody trail of events as the owners reap their revenge.
And this is what Hamell's best at, these sleazy, noir-drenched tales that - when they work - are like almost nothing else in popular music. Dear Pete, at just over a minute and a half, is another good example. In this sparse and spare song the narrator owes money to a man who's promised to cut his thumbs off if he doesn't pay so the narrator convinces his friend Pete to help him stick up a liquor store by blackmailing him with faked internet porno pictures and threatening to tell his wife about them. And for those two songs, any album would be worth getting.
Hamell's other forte is, unexpectedly, the Carveresque vignette, the gaps between people's lives, and the tremulous Hail and Everything and Nothing highlight his (shock horror) tender side. But there's also too much of the just routine, the scratchy angry rubble of words that doesn't lead anywhere, that sounds like a drunk braying in your ear at the worst party in the world.
So, judicious use of the program button is recommended but, for the two songs mentioned above, where briefly rock music and hard-boiled detective fiction merge, this album will remain essential.
CWAS #13 - Autumn 2003