In what are indeed dire times, I'm finding hope for 2006. Because not long after my annual rant about the sorry state of political music, along comes an album that stirs my soul.
The album is Songs for Parents Who Enjoy Drugs, which should hint at the content, though it should also be noted that the artist behind it, though a parent, doesn't do drugs (or maybe I should say, doesn't do them anymore). He goes by the handle of Hamell on Trial, which implies much, including the fact that he's just one man with a guitar yet makes music with the power of the greatest bands -- The Who, Stones, Led Zep, Clash, you name it. And makes music and write songs like a man whose life hangs in the balance.
I've been a believer since Ed Hamell, who goes by the "on Trial" moniker, wowed me when he first started playing the clubs of Austin, Texas. As I got to know him, I found a kindred soul. Of similar age, we both grew up in the economically declining climes of Upstate New York and have similar world views, values -- yep, even we rad-libs have 'em -- and senses of humor. Another fan and supporter of Hamell on Trial is the self-declared but truly most righteous babe in contemporary music, Ani DiFranco. She has taken Hamell along on tour, signed him to her Righteous Babe record label, and has now produced his finest album (within a catalog that, with the exception of a major label misstep on his sophomore outing, is as good as anything resembling rock and/or folk gets these days).
Hamell on Trial creates what I call über-folk music that proves that, as the great title of that not up-to-par second album declared, the chord is mightier than the sword. Especially when it's matched by a brilliant imagination and a fierce, able and courageous command of the language that waves the First Amendment like a freak flag. And with a deliciously wicked wit to boot.
So when Hamell sings about "Values," he brilliantly frames it as a dialog with his toddler son, who wonders why he should pick up his toys and share them with others when we're involved in a senseless war in Iraq and our president is a douche bag (my words not his). In doing so, Hamell brings into sharp contrast the childishly simple proposition that anyone with half a brain should be able to see: the State of the Union is seriously fouled.
Or if you're tired of right-wing neo-fascist commentators, sing along with a punk-rockin' Ed and Ani as they declare, "I think Ann Coulter's got a c**t that stinks (let's engage her in debate/let's make her deny it)."
Offended? Get over it. As Hamell says, borrowing from Elvis Costello, "I used to be disgusted. Now I'm pissed." And now is the time for us to use every weapon of outrage to scream from rooftops across the land about just how thoroughly fouled up this nation and our culture is right now. Like Lenny Bruce, Charles Bukowski, Dr. Hunter S. Thompson and Noam Chomsky before him (as well as Dylan, the younger Costello, John Lennon, Lou Reed, Joe Strummer and other righteous rock dudes), Hamell knows that the flipside of freedom of speech is the responsibility to tell it like it is in whatever terms it takes to get the sheeple to wake up, pay attention, listen and think, damnit! And rock too.
Hamell also tackles such issues as telling your kids about your "indiscretions of the past" with drugs ("Inquiring Minds") and soccer moms on medication ("Mommy's Not Talking Today"), along with delivering a couple of vivid street-scene mini-movies in song that rank up there with the best from Hubert Selby Jr. and Jim Thompson. And he offers a kickin' romantic rocker about "rubbin' one out" for the woman you love ("Jerkin'") as well as a stirring call to the revolutionary ramparts with a hey, hey Bo Diddley beat ("Civil Disobedience").
Yep, this album is a masterpiece. And created by a guy who is a fine human being, a great American, and one hot, stunningly riveting performer.
So do your bit for the cause and buy Songs for Parents Who Enjoy Drugs, even if you happen to be childless and/or a clean-living type who has never even tasted a mind or mood altering substance. And play it often and play it loud -- for your friends, for your enemies, and even for your kids (when they're mature enough to get it, which is likely younger than you think).
Come the end of the year, I'm hoping I can rave about even more albums like this one in my 2006 political music wrap-up, and declare that music for real freedom is on the march again. Because we need it now more than ever. And two months into this annus horribilis, Hamell on Trial has set the current standard for greatness.
Rob Patterson lives in Austin, Texas. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.