In the spirit of full disclosure, yes – am a fan of Hamell On Trial. I was totally won over by Ed Hamell when the singer’s eighth album, Tough Love, came out in 2003 and have excitedly checked and given consistently positive coverage to each album that has come along since then. I can say truthfully that I’ve enjoyed each one – but I must also confess that I haven’t been as enamored with any like I was with Tough Love.
I think, with that release, it was the timing: when Tough Love came out, the world was still reeling from the tragic incident which hit Columbine high school, George W. Bush was closing in on the end of his first term in office, the U.S. had not yet recovered from the events of 9/11 (and the U.S. had just invaded Iraq) and everything seemed as though it was positioned to boil over again. It was a hard time – and here came Tough Love with equal measures of heart and fury to serve a reality check. Songs like “Don’t Kill” resonated with a perfect conglomeration of social commentary, criticism and catharsis that had that had never come together the same way before. It was beautiful. It was a perfect storm.
Of course, there have been albums which have appeared from Hamell On Trial since Tough Love came out (six of them – three studio albums and three live albums, in fact) and each has definitely had some inspired moments and moments of brilliance, but none has captured a spirit and collection of images so perfectly. None before The Night Guy at The Apocalypse, Profiles of Rushing Midnight.
This time – with a billionaire would-be oligarch sitting in the big chair at the head of the United States government and with white supremacists exerting a presence which hasn’t been seen since the Second World War and with natural disasters battering the coastal regions of the United States – the stage is perfectly set. Having been recorded using a cellphone in various locations around the world while Hamell was on tour, this album has a raw urgency which simply cannot be faked or replicated and it’s the kind of thing which needs to be experienced firsthand to be understood.
Night Guy at The Apocalypse, Profiles of Rushing Midnight
As soon as listeners sink a needle into the A-side of The Night Guy at The Apocalypse…and “Slap” begins to play, listeners will be able to grasp the urgency of the music firsthand. There, Hamell’s signature acoustic guitar tone rumbles along on a progression which melds punk and measured math rock in its simplicity and power, but the real force can be found in Hamell’s vocal delivery. Lines like “You’ll get a slap, you’ll get a slap/ Don’t want to hear your fuckin’ crap/ This is the one place your shit doesn’t sell” are vicious enough on their own but, delivered as they are with Hamell’s taunting, nasal vocal tone and a guitar figure which sounds about as ominous as the instrumental suite from the Jaws soundtrack, listeners will feel the little hairs on their necks begin to stand at attention.
While the lyrical content does get more complicated as the song progresses, the primal power of the guitar figure endures; it drags listeners along for the entire duration of the song, and spins listeners mercilessly until they cannot turn away.
After “Slap” sets the tone for The Night Guy at The Apocalypse, the sound quality spontaneously improves with the literate poetry and sardonic sarcasm of “Toast” (which, as its title suggests, is thematically centered around good cheers and “Here’s to…”s) and then gets better still with the lugubriously intoned, Tom Waits-informed “Love at First Sight.”
It is there where the sonic tumblers – the sound, the wit, the style and craft – all fall together; lines like, “She was playing pinball, I was dealin’ blow/ I thought of Ronnie Spector when she spoke/ She asked me for a cigarette, I was high as a kite/ When she stole my wallet it was love at first sight” are flawless image-creation exercises and, over the simple and repetitive guitar line which drives it, the song is destined to win the hearts of anyone who comes in contact with it.
Again – the stripped down, needs-first structure of the music behind the lyrics (just that tell-tale acoustic guitar) force the writing to take center-stage and, while the image of cupid shooting an Uzi is a little cringe-worthy when it plays through for the first time, it gets smoother and easier to ride each time it reoccurs.
As the A-side progresses, the songs get leaner (like “Rollin’ With Icarus” – which features only Hamell’s vocal and his hands keeping a beat on the dashboard of his car) and flat-out live (“Aggie and the D.A.” was recorded onstage one night with a gang chorus of British voices as backing) before finally closing with an ode to the romance of aggression when the alcohol flows deep enough to rub feelings raw (“Bar Fight”) at the end of the side.
Between those six cuts alone, Hamell has already covered an incredible amount of ground (literally – from Nevada to New York to Ohio to Ireland) and listeners will already be able to feel the exertion from that, but they’ll also be baited and ready for more as they anxiously set the stylus into the album’s B-side.
While there is no dramatic difference in the demeanor of “Melting Snow” (which opens the B-), the energy never dips or lapses on the flipside of The Night Guy at The Apocalypse…. Hamell’s rapier wit endures as he outlines a love affair with the roughneck bars he’s seen (“The Night Guy”), the joys of excess (“Too High”) and motormouthing brilliantly about a latenight barfly who has been across the country to finish a story of beggars, liars, pimps and cheats, and those listening will find themselves only too happy to follow along from Iceland to Massachusetts to Michigan to Brighten to Wales and all the other points at which the songs were brought to life for this recording.
Each feels like a perfect stolen moment which was captured while the artist was on his way to somewhere else, but just had to pause and immortalize it before the feeling was lost. That time taken makes each cut here feel special in a way that recording them “with the good mikes” in a “good studio” just wouldn’t facilitate and, when the B-side does close out and the needle does lift from it, the experience of the record will just leave listeners to play it again, front-to-back, as often as they can.
“After all that said, does The Night Guy at The Apocalypse, Profiles of Rushing Midnight really have that much in common with Tough Love,” you ask? Well, reading this review back, I suppose it could be contended that there aren’t many similarities between the two albums really, other than the fact that they were made by the same musician. They weren’t recorded the same way and it doesn’t exactly seem like they might have been written in the same manner either. No, what binds these two albums and my affinity for them together is a little more intangible; true, the musics and the sounds in them are not the same, but the sense that there is an unstoppable quality about both of them is impossible to miss.
Tough Love was a moment where Hamell On Trial had just signed with a new label after leaving a major. Some would say that might have been a problem, but that music could not be stopped. There was an inevitability when you heard it that it was coming. It was focused. The exact same thing is true of the music which appears on The Night Guy at The Apocalypse, Profiles of Rushing Midnight; the power and urgency which drives this music was so great that it could not be contained until its auteur reached a recording studio. It needed recording immediately, regardless of where Ed Hamell was at that moment. That urgency is the infectious thing – and it will win you when it reaches you reader, believe it.