Judge, Jury and Elocutioner

Hamell on Trial
Big As Life
(Mercury)

David Lowery, chief smart ass for Cracker, once intoned in song that, "What the world needs now is another folk singer/Like I need a hole in my head."

David Lowery needs to meet Ed Hamell.
Or, at least, check out Hamell's striking debut album, Big As Life, a noisy, testy disc of mostly acoustic, mostly killer material. Hamell, who uses the stage name "Hamell on Trial," is everything most folkies aren't. His voice is loud, his mood effusive, his overall presence aggressive to the point of punk. He's a charging bull amid the ever-sleepy flock of sensitive singer/strummers, and a welcome addition to the fold.

Hamell, a 30-something native of upstate New York, honed his edgy style in Austin, Texas, where he spent the past few years delivering pizzas by day and building a considerable fan base by night. He recently moved to the Big Apple, a move that makes sense considering his vigorous, restless muse. This is, after all, a folkie who sings lines like, "I'm all alone but I've got my guitar/Let's think about some stuff we can smash."

Big As Life is a convincing showcase for Hamell's talents. The CD's opening song, "Sugarfree," blisters behind an attack of kinetic, percussive strumming, the barrage enhanced by production as slick as the performer's big, bald head. The pristine studio acoustics also help amplify Hamell's thin, upper-register vocals, which at times sound like Curly on meth, the alternately angry and amusing words scrambling out of his mouth. The scattershot vocals and rhythmic guitar work make for an impressive performance, one that's repeated throughout the album as Hamell presents his storytelling songs about misfits and just plain folks--himself included on both counts--in various stages of experience.

"Blood of the Wolf," for example, is a verbal saga approaching mini-epic proportions. It features an enticing series of guitar chords that support Hamell's tale of an old, hairy pal named Frank, a truckdriver and onetime co-worker who, armed with a fork, once robbed a KFC restaurant. A hipster working the irony angle would try to tell such a story in a way that would make the protagonist seem normal; Hamell simply considers the scenario and blurts out with amazement, "A fork! A fucking fork!" like he's relating the story for the first time. The narrative voice is strong enough that you feel you know Frank by the end of the song--and Hamell, too.

Even better is "Open Up the Gates," a truly moving paean to Hamell's late mother. "Open up the gates for her," he sings quietly to the heavens, his voice free of undue sentiment. "Let her dance with Fred Astaire/. . . bring her Estee Lauder/And pictures of her daughter and her only son/She'll want them."

The song continues with Hamell cautioning the head man of the hereafter, "Don't lose her in paperwork or files/Don't shuffle her along with phony smiles," admitting to God that "I've lost faith in even you."

By the end of "Gates," Hamell's clear, unwavering voice is warning, "I'm no man of great renown/I've got no weight to throw around . . ./But if I hear she's been ignored/Deprived of her reward/Heaven hath seen no fury like a son that's scorned/Be forewarned." The song is simple, direct and a pusher of goose bumps in the best folk-music tradition.

Other Big As Life highlights include rococo recounts of characters who run away to leave the circus ("Dead Man's Float"), and icy depictions of wanna-be rockers endlessly posing and pontificating ("Z-ROXX"). "Chew my ear off talkin' about you," Hamell sings on "Z-ROXX," adding, "Get a buck and try and buy a clue/You ain't HYsker DY/You ain't even Mstley CrYe."

"Z-ROXX" would be a bigger hoot if it wasn't embellished with a background, harpsichord-sounding keyboard. Similar flourishes--snippets of strings, droning tape loops, recorded background sounds of a busy bar--get in the way of other songs, too.

But the most pressing problem on Big As Life is when Hamell tries to make himself too big. The title cut veers into self-righteousness as Hamell describes a dream about Count Basie, who's pissed at Hamell and white people in general because of a Life magazine article showing pictures of blacks using crack. The song ends with an overtly understanding Hamell sympathizing with Basie, then offering some pithy, equally condescending advice to the rest of us on race relations. Hamell proves just as tedious when he goes slumming in his stories, as on "Piccolo Joe," a Starsky and Hutch-like account of illicit commerce at a seedy nightclub. The narrative makes Hamell sound like a second-rate Bukowski, a hip-happenin' guy by default with his cutesy character sketches of ne'er-do-wells. It doesn't work. The song rings with the dishonesty of a run-at-the-mouth dilettante.

Hamell is far more potent when he chucks the strained protest songs and irrelevant lowlife tales and deals with real, identifiable emotions instead. If Ed Hamell indeed considers himself and his work "on trial," as his nom de folk suggests, he's got himself a good case with a star witness in Big As Life. But he needs to remember to keep playing to the jury members. They're the ones who matter most in any court.

 
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