Graded on a Curve:
Michael Hall,
Love Is Murder

Austin, Texas: Where you can’t fire off a six-shooter without hitting some manner of rockabilly genius, half-mad, Listerine-chugging singer-songwriter, displaced Englishman, or, if you’re really lucky, just some drummer. Austin has depths—unacknowledged musical geniuses skulk about its streets, drunk or sober, hopeless or hopeful, stubborn to the point of absurdity or about ready to throw in the towel.

One of its premiere unacknowledged geniuses is Michael Hall. He began his career with the Wild Seeds, then went off on his own to write great songs that tell wonderful stories, stories like “Put Down That Pig” that are guaranteed to bring a smile to your face. Take “America” off his 2006 LP, The Song He Was Listening to When He Died. It’s a defiant song about taking pride, not in America the nation, but America the band, and it includes such wonderful lines as, “They rode the Ventura Highway/They rode the horse with no name/They rode Sister Golden Hair/All three of them at one time.” I’ll be damned if “America” isn’t Randy Newman good, and I can’t pay a songwriter a higher compliment.

It’s tough to pick a favorite LP with Hall, but I lean towards 1992’s Love Is Murder. It’s filled with weird and wonderful story-telling songs, beginning with the deadpan “Let’s Take Some Drugs and Drive Around.” Accompanied only by a piano, Hall sings lugubriously about cruising aimlessly; he certainly doesn’t make it sound like that much fun. A rough harmonica breaks things up, before Hall repeats “Drive around, drive around” until the song ends. “What Did They Do With the President’s Brain?” is a JFK conspiracy theorist’s dream and mines Warren Zevon territory; set to a rollicking rock beat, Hall name drops Allen Dulles, wonders what happened to the real murder weapon (they ended up in a pawn shop in Dien Bien Phu), and sings, “Look out here he comes/There he goes/The President of the United States with bullet holes.” He blames the CIA, who “tore up the streets of Camelot,” but it’s highly unlikely he’s in earnest; not with those lines about George Bush “kissing a tramp up on the roof.”

Meanwhile, “Trampled Under Foot” is an unrecognizable folk rock take on the Led Zeppelin classic. It works like gangbusters thanks to some great fiddle, sweet female backup vocalists, and subtle drumming that will make you forget all about John Bonham. It’s a miracle of transmogrification, and I like it almost as much as I like “Baby You Scare Me,” a lovely and spritely (but morbidly dark) song sung by former Wild Seeds vocalist Kris McKay. “You won’t talk,” sings McKay, before adding the sad lines, “What did I do to you?/Why do I never know?/What did you do to yourself?/Why do I hate myself so?” The tune packs a real emotional punch, which is also the case with the stripped-down “I Wish I Were Home With You,” in which Hall is once again accompanied only by piano. He makes wish after wish (“I wish my friends wouldn’t die”) before wishing he were home with his love. He wants to hold her, just for one minute, and you can hear the ache in his voice. No choruses, no guitars, just Hall nakedly expressing raw desire. Music doesn’t get much more real than that.

The melodic rockabilly of “Bleeding to Death” opens with some clicking drum sticks and submerged guitars before it kicks into gear, with Hall alternating, “Some call it love” with “Some call it sin” until the catchy chorus, during which Hall sings, “Hit me I’m bleeding to death.” I like the heavy twang on the guitar solo, but can’t make hide nor hair of the lyrics, not that it matters much. “When September Comes” opens with percussion like a galloping horse, while Hall sings, “Look out everybody/I’m changing my life/September comes/I’ll change my name/And hold my past to blame.” It’s a dark song, with Hall singing, “Cold dark wind is blowing/From places I’ve never been.” Meanwhile the guitar makes a doleful sound, and that drum keeps galloping, and Hall sings, “And all the things you thought you’d die for/You don’t think about anymore.” But come September he’s going to get smart, or so he says, leaving us to those percussive hoof beats leading off into the unknowable future.

“Demolition Moon” opens with some Crazy Horse guitars and kicks right into gear, a rocker in which Hall sings about lovers beneath the big red moon; her “smile is sharp and wet/He is thinking hard about his brand of cigarette/Should he change?/No, not yet.” And then comes the great chorus with McKay joining him in singing, “You live long enough in this big old world/You will find out too late or soon/If you live close enough you will surely feel/The demolition moon.” Then he mentions the Lost Highway, and changes the lyric to “You will die too late or too soon” before McKay croons and Hall goes out singing, “Who is the moon?” I’ll be damned if I know.

Meanwhile, “River of Love” is a lugubrious piano-driven ballad in which Hall sings, “Live this life/You must leave the ground/I held it closely and followed it down/The river of love.” Then comes the lovely and spritely chorus, with McKay joining Hall in repeating, “I’m going swimming/In the river of love.” The piano solo that follows is beautiful, and then Hall returns to sing, “Under dark water/That’s where I’ll be,” and you realize that the LP’s title isn’t just hype: that river is deep and cold, and you risk being drowned, drowned by love. “Beeville by Morning” opens with some strummed acoustic guitars and a mandolin and boasts a lovely melody. It tells the tale of a spurned lover pursuing his love to Beeville. “My baby went to Beeville and I’m going out of my mind,” he sings, that sumptuous mandolin accompanying him. “Beeville or bust,” he sings, then “I’m driving fast/I’m driving alone/Someone she has never known,” and it’s hard to know whether he’s singing about her new lover or himself.

Meanwhile, “Love Is Murder” has a Springsteenesque feel to it; there’s a bounce in its step as Hall and McKay sing the chorus of a song about two lovers come to a bad end (“I love you is no guarantee”). It ends with the police discovering the man with blood—it’s not his type, Hall is careful to add—on his hands, sitting in his underwear with a knife at his feet, but she’s nowhere to be found. The authorities never find her, and the man ends up in a mental institution as Hall sings, “You might as well go tragically” before the guitars kick in with a nice instrumental. And so it ends, except it doesn’t; he’s still in hospital 5 years later when long-presumed-dead lover returns to visit him, and vows her eternal love. So love isn’t necessarily murder; sometimes it’s two lovers who have to go their own ways in order to discover themselves again. In any event, it’s a great song from beginning to end.

I’ve saved the best tune for the end. “Put Down That Pig” is a raucous romp of a song about a break-up where the main item in dispute is a pig. It opens on a rockabilly note, with Hall singing, “Turn around you SOB/Who the hell are you?/Walking around my living room/It’s a quarter past two” and “That looks like my watch/That looks my rig/That looks like my wallet/That looks like my pig.” We’re then treated to one cool guitar solo, an absolutely wonderful chorus in which Hall and McKay sing, “Put down that pig,” and the back story of how the pig came to be in the stranger’s arms to begin with. There’s a great piano solo, a bit of a drum solo, and the wonderful lines, “Live is really wild/Live is really weird/Love is to be worshipped/Love is to be feared/Love will make you zag/And love will make her zig/Love will make you go to bed/With a pig.” It’s a wild and wooly tale, and sounds like something Bob Dylan might have birthed during his stay at Big Pink, and I can’t say enough about how much of a sheer delight it is. Almost makes me want to go out and buy a pig, it does.

Hall has put out plenty of other great songs—check out the rockin’ “One Was Coming My Way, One Was Going the Other Way” and the feedback-distorted “Captain, Captain,” to say nothing of the hilarious and cryptic “The Song He Was Listening to When He Died”—on multiple albums, but his musical career seems to have come to a mysterious end in 2006, with the release of The Song He Was Listening to When He Died. It’s possible Hall decided to return to his first career, journalism, full time—he spent a large amount of time trying to track down leads on the great but mysterious slide guitarist Blind Willie Johnson—but if so I hope the day comes when he decides to make music again. Put down that pig, Michael, and come back to us; the world needs all the America fans it can get.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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