March 2004

Hamell On Trial - Tough Love
Righteous Babe CD - RBR033-D
Released: 2003

Musical Performance **1/2
Recording Quality **
Overall Enjoyment **1/2

Lou Dog - 61 Old Depot
Betty Jane Records CD 634479877025
Released: 2004

Musical Performance ****
Recording Quality ***1/2
Overall Enjoyment ***1/2

by Joseph Taylor

With his shaved head and dark-rimmed glasses, Hamell on Trial (Ed Hamell) looks like Moby’s beefier older cousin. The difference is that while Moby presents himself as a gentle moonbeam, Hamell’s persona is that of a guitar warrior in the Woody Guthrie tradition. Tough Love is his fifth disc and his first release for Righteous Babe, Ani DiFranco’s label. Hamell’s a pretty angry guy and he’s angry about a lot of things, not least the hypocrisy of the hipoisie, as in these opening lines from "Halfway":

I see you on the cover of Rolling Stone, or one of those other corny music magazines, that's just an excuse to sell fashion or bulls**t, but occasionally sticks in a good writer or political story so at the board meeting they can ease their conscience that the majority of their readership has the IQ of... well... a Creed fan.

Obviously this guy isn’t going to be opening for Creed anytime soon, but Rolling Stone, to its credit, gave Tough Love a good review. Those lyrics should give you some idea of Hamell’s fierce convictions, which he often hammers home with aggressive, overdriven acoustic guitar (and a fair amount of profanity, you should be warned). The cover of one of his discs, Ed’s Not Dead -- Hamell Comes Alive (2000) shows him playing in front of a mountain of Marshall amps and Hamell clearly wants to play up his folk-punk persona.

That’s too bad, because the strongest tune on Tough Love, "Hail," is the gentlest. Hamell sings in a simple, deeply moving voice about Tina Brandon, Brian Deneke, and Matthew Shepard. He imagines them meeting in heaven for coffee and Brandon asks Deneke, "Do you ever want to go back?" "No," he answers her, "we can be who we want to be." They ask Matthew Shepard, "Does it still hurt?"

And he paused and spit over the rail
And it flew down to earth, just like hail

It’s the most powerful image on the disc, beautiful and brutal at the same time. Hamell finger-picks the guitar softly and plays a simple overdubbed riff behind his voice, never once giving in to cheap emotion. On "Hail" Hamell briefly brings the concepts of tolerance and diversity -- robbed of their meaning through sledgehammer repetition -- back to life.

Hamell turns in another affecting vocal on "All That was Said," where he is joined by Ms. DiFranco on vocals and keys. She and Andrew "Goat" Gilchrist, also on keyboards, add some subtle atmospheric touches to the song and Hamell’s guitar has a marvelous, booming tone. His guitar also sounds great on the driving rock tunes, such as "Don’t Kill," and "There is a God." On balance, however, the disc often sounds too DIY and for every good tune there’s one that stumbles. "When Destiny Calls" and "Tough Love" are stories about criminals and life on the lam that other writers, Tom Waits especially, do better and without effort. "First Date" is a song any rock'n'roll songwriter would be happy to claim, but it’s sold short by a flat recording.

Yet despite it’s weaknesses, I like Tough Love -- or, at least, I like half of it. Hamell is true to himself and when he’s on he has a good ear for songwriting. If he’d steer away from things he doesn’t do well (and I’m not sure anyone could do the folk-rap "95 South" well), he could make a great rock'n'roll record. He should pick up an electric guitar once in a while and go for a cleaner recording.

Philadelphia-based rocker Lou Dog shares Hamell’s talent for powerful imagery and pursues his sound with similar conviction and focus. He’s not as overtly political as Hamell, but he often seems to be as alienated from the mainstream:

Bring together this Kaleidoscope life
It’s scatterbrained and cluttered
Wasteful not right

The first thing you’ll notice about Lou Dog is that he’s an ace guitarist. He announces his command of the instrument on "Ripped and Stripped," the opening track of his new disc, 61 Old Depot. You can almost feel the heat pouring from the tube amp as he strikes the opening chords. He plays a slashing fuzz-tone lead throughout the song that evokes both punk rock and the psychedelic era. Feedback darts in and out throughout the track, and here and there a flanged guitar chord helps vary the texture of the arrangement. We’re only at the end of track one and already we know we’re in the hands of a guitarist who knows exactly how to get the sounds he wants.

Lou Dog pulls influences in from a lot of places -- Television, the Velvet Underground, Bob Dylan -- but just when you think you’ve got him sussed, he throws you a curve. "The Touch" begins as an acoustic blues, then the drums begin to slam and Lou Dog kicks in a loud, distorted guitar. So where did that surf-guitar lead come from at the end of the third verse? And why does it work so well? The promo material that accompanied the disc contains a description of The Lou Dog Theory, "…three or four chords is pretty much all you need." He’s right, especially when they’re played by guitarist whose ear is unerring as his.

While Lou Dog may build his songs upon a couple of fairly simple elements, he knows how to put some meat on them. On "Vertical Sea" he sings a hushed vocal over a repeated riff that seems to expand as the song continues. He plucks an occasional harmonic note in the background and ends each verse with a cleanly played, deliberate guitar line reminiscent of Tom Verlaine. Unlike so many current neo-punk bands, Lou Dog doesn’t seem to be trying on the styles of older musicians for size or recycling them as an attitude. He borrows well, but his own good ear lets him take the things he’s learned in new directions.

If Lou Dog has one fault, it’s that he occasionally crams a few too many syllables into a line (so, now that I mention it, do Lou Reed and Bruce Springsteen). In addition, you may find that you need to give yourself one or two plays to get used to his sometimes-raspy voice. But the power of his songs and his talent as an arranger will make you a believer. A number of punk-influenced discs have been released to great acclaim in the last year, but few show the range or ability exhibited in 61 Old Depot.