Graded on a Curve:
Hamell on Trial,
Tackle Box

It’s about time somebody delivered an epic musical slap down of America’s vile bully in chief, Donald Trump. And it’s only proper that that somebody should be Ed Hamell, the outspoken acoustic punk poet/provocateur behind Hamell on Trial. On 2017’s Tackle Box Hamell vents his spleen in a series of visceral rants in which no holds are barred, and he doesn’t limit himself to body slamming Donald Trump; he also takes pointed jabs at our country’s lawless and arrogant cops, its “Ugly American” brand of virulent patriotism and 2nd Amendment gun nuts, and its seemingly inexorable slide into the moral abyss in general.

A collective ugliness in our culture has coalesced around Donald Trump to create the greatest crisis of conscience America has faced since the Civil Rights Movement, and like any person of morals, Hamell refuses to remain silent. No, he’s pissed, and he expresses his outrage in outpourings of dark wit and pure vitriol. He gut punches America’s law enforcement officers—who can get away with almost anything and take full advantage of the fact—in the acoustic hardcore track “Not Aretha’s Respect (Cops),” the moral of which is that cops have done absolutely nothing to demonstrate that they’re the good guys and need to be told this to their face. Except to do so is to risk getting shot, because shooting people is just another little thing cops can do with impunity.

On the restrained and hip hop flavored “The More You Know” Hamell wonders what to tell his son in the face of the election of a man of deplorable character; on the moody and electronica-influenced “Safe” he sings real fast about all the really awful things happening and seems to offer safe harbor, but what safe harbor do any of us really have in the ugly here and now? On the plaintive “Better Believe It” he takes a cold hard look around at all the bad shit going down and concludes, “So the only thing that’s right/Is you with me tonight.” As for the title track, it’s a jittery and caffeine-fueled stream of consciousness meditation on just about everything, including how Hamell has “seen the fall of heroes” and “the rise of clowns.” Me, I dig it for Hamell’s spazzed out guitar playing and the very weird backing vocals.

A distorted guitar powers the corrosive “Mouthy B,” about an Australian woman who is more than happy to share her jaundiced perspective on the so-called Land of the Free. Ever diminishing educational opportunities, endless flag waving, an economy built on endless war, the mindless celebration of the child warriors (aka “heroes”) America puts in harm’s way to protect its dubious interests, a dark history of slavery and genocide—Hamell’s old flame’s conclusion about all of it is “I don’t think your government cares about its people,” and it’s hard to dispute her. As for the menacing “Bodyguard Blanket” it’s about throwing yourself atop your loved ones to stop the latest madman’s storm of bullets because your elected legislators are in the pay of the NRA and would sooner throw your kid under the proverbial bus than risk that benighted organization’s ire.

But Hamell doesn’t just focus on the political; several of the best songs on Tackle Box limn the personal and the sexual. Hamell dives into the latter with salacious glee on the bucking “She Ride It,” which features a gritty and lascivious groove and a set of lyrics about greased thighs and an orgy in a hotel with Miley Cyrus and why not, Susan Sarandon. I wish he hadn’t tossed in the line “Her vag can melt a sea of ice” but I sure do like all the rodeo whoops and hollers. Ride ‘em cowboy! And every bit as good is the tender and touching “Ballad of Chris,” in which Hamell lovingly evokes the memory of a dead childhood drug buddy. “You’re gone now,” sings Ed sadly, adding, “I should have reached out. My old friend.” I spoke with Hamell once by phone, and I can tell you he’s a very empathetic individual. He actually wanted to know how I was doing, and when I told him the truth (I was going through a divorce at the time) he spoke such simple words of caring and wisdom it nearly brought me to tears. And we were total strangers, mind you.

Which is another way of saying that Hamell is not just immensely talented and one of the most authentic voices in rock’n’roll—he’s a man of integrity and a mensch. One of the good guys. Whether he’s singing about his nearly lethal brushes with drug addiction or how much he cares about his son you immediately know—no matter how many outrageous jokes or times he may tell his audience to go fuck itself—that you’re in the presence of a man who truly gives a shit. Sure he’s pissed. If you have a heart and soul you’re pissed too. In that respect Ed is fighting the good fight for all of us, and I for one applaud him for that. Buy this goddamn record goddamnit. For God and Country!

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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