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Hamell On Trial - The Chord Is Mightier Than The Sword
(Mercury)

Hamell On Trial is Beck if Beck made any sense. Maybe that's not fair to Beck—ahis albums are infused with a better balance of sonic and poetic coolness than most, and he figured out the proportional relationship between turntables and microphones besides. But for every dope hook of his you can check out while his DJ revolves it, there's often the sense that the whole Beck thing is some kind of elaborate put-on. The possibility that it might all be some inside joke does not devalue the work, it just puts it in a certain category. In other words, you get the felling that if "Loser" had to be an ordinary, descriptive tale about Beck's insecure teenage years, the song would have been about as compelling as "Beauty School Drop-Out."

Maybe Beck Hansen and Ed Hamell grew up listening to a lot of the same records; maybe they just had the same music teacher in fourth grade. In any event, the two men seem to approach this bizarre world from a strangely similar perspective, yet they solve the dilemma of what to make of it in quite different ways. Mr. Hamell is several year's Mr. Hansen's senior, yet Hamell's second major-label album arrives about a year after Beck's second big-deal effort, and age may or may not play some part in the words songwriters use to paint pictures of their lives. As far as the words these two fellows use, in Dylan terms, Beck is somewhere around Bringing It All Back Home, while Hamell's already near Blood On The Tracks territory.

Now, if Hamell has a "Tangled Up In Blue" in him, he hasn't written it yet. But The Chord contains a wealth of gems dealing with temporary migrant workers, bar rats, and domestic violence, all from a real and serious, yet never self-righteous point of view. "John Lennon" is a mature, funny, and poignant coming-of-age tale of sorts. A sketch of Lennon not as the mythical stuff of dreams (Paul Simon's maudlin "The Late Great Johnny Ace") or as a lost fiend (Elton John's moving "Empty Garden"), this Lennon is, quite remarkably, a simple human being—a man who tells young Ed to amscray when their paths briefly cross. "Decisions," the most Beck-like track musically, is simple but real in its portrayal of an insecure guy's ambivalence and self-doubt.

Hamell's mostly-spoken delivery on songs like "Lennon" and his one-man acoustic attack on many songs has led many befuddled listeners to lump him into the neo-folkie yawnfest, a grave miscategorization the frenzied artist himself rebuts on the album-closing "The Meeting." Story songs here like "The Vines" and "Red Marty" may occasionally skirt close to such territory, but no genre unites Chord's 11 tunes so much as the fact that they are all Hamell, all the time. Maybe he hasn't been to hell and back. But the man has seen some bad shit, and while he seems to have little difficulty finding realistic yet poetic ways to describe the horror and ridiculousness of it all, he has chosen a lightly-trodden path in the rock and roll woods, where humor and earnestness mix with the ugly truth and somehow approximate real life. Hamell On Trial strikes a mighty chord indeed.

YEAH YEAH YEAH, 1997