Hamell on Trial

Tough Love

Ed Hamell, better known as Hamell on Trial, was loosely affiliated with the '90s miniphenomenon known as anti-folk, the appellation bestowed on singer/songwriters armed with acoustic instrumentation who played and sang with a rough-hewn attitude closer to that of punk rock. The most successful exponent of anti-folk is Ani DiFranco, on whose indie label appears Tough Love, Hamell on Trial's latest, to which DiFranco contributes keyboards and some lovely duet vocals.

Hamell sings in a jovial, slightly and attractively flat voice that's rich with indignation at everything superficial and cruel the world has to offer. "Halfway" is a somewhat heavy-handed rant about, well, just about everything: Rolling Stone, Creed, shallow avarice, celebrities as demigods, abuse of political power, and even the singer's own preaching-to-the-converted self-righteousness. What saves the song from being another tired, obvious tirade is a killer strummed guitar hook, crackling drumming, and a pugnacious yet resigned chorus of "I mean: fuck it/ Why go halfway?" presented with gloriously unrefined basement-band brio. The peppy and habit-forming "Everything and Nothing" and "First Date" continue the abrasive-folk thesis, the former with its nifty variation on Van Morrison's archetypal "Gloria" chord progression, the latter through its catchy, forlorn Dylan-wannabe harmonica riff and an engaging, pleading "Baby, baby/ I'll be true to you" chorus (it could be a sequel to Joe Jackson's hit "Is She Really Going Out With Him," as it shares a similar theme of desperate misanthropy).

Alas, there's a bit of filler that makes this disc drag, like "Dear Pete," which tries too hard to be funny ("He's gonna do something dumb/ Like cut off my thumbs/ I'd hate to lose 'em/ I still use 'em/ When I eat"). And sometimes Hamell's vocals drip with so much sarcasm and smugness, they remind me of everything I don't miss about the Violent Femmes. Despite this, Hamell on Trial does DiFranco's lineage proud through songs that allow the bile to come up and go down easy.

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