Music

Ella, Sinatra, and Hamell on Trial: The Great American Songbook in Difficult Times

Photo: Kyle Cuneo (New West Records)

Hamell on Trial draws upon the musical power of Fitzgerald and the sexual prowess of Sinatra to become one of the finest musical interpreters of America itself.

Tackle Box
Hamell on Trial

New West

August 2017

The finest interpreters of the Great American Songbook include Ella Fitzgerald and, in a respectable second, Frank Sinatra. Fitzgerald sang like a siren, with a flawless beauty sustained through every note of eight LPs dedicated to the songbook. Her renditions of "Anything Goes" and "Mood Indigo", to begin, "performed a cultural transaction as extraordinary as Elvis' contemporaneous integration of white and African American soul", according to Frank Rich. "Here was a black woman popularizing urban songs often written by immigrant Jews to a national audience of predominantly white Christians." With her razor-sharp diction and perfect intonation, Fitzgerald muddied the lines between pop and art, delivering vernacular music to the world with the precision of a classical virtuoso.

Sinatra, too, brought an exacting discipline to the mic, with slightly different ends. "His voice has a very strident, insistent sound in the top register, a smooth lyrical sound in the middle register, and a very tender sound in the low," noted arranger Nelson Riddle. "His voice is built on infinite taste, with an overall inflection of sex. He points everything he does from a sexual standpoint" (Charles Granata, Sessions with Sinatra).

The Great American Songbook bubbles over with a fevered desire. It's a hot mess of black and white and hues in-between. It's the fertile soil for R&B, beat poetry, abstract expressionism, and dissident stand-up comedy. It's about sex and race and rock 'n' roll—which, along with justice and compassion, serve as the guiding lights for Hamell on Trial, Ed Hamell's stage name. Imagine Bill Hicks mash-mixed with the Clash on acoustic guitar, with notable exceptions, including the plaintive "All That Was Said", with Ani DiFranco. With the aid of time travel, a Fitzgerald-Sinatra duet of "All That Was Said" could pry open a songbook effectively closed for 50 years. Since the mid-1990s, Hamell has drawn upon the power of Fitzgerald's cultural transactions and the prowess of Sinatra's sexual inflections to become one of the finest musical interpreters of America itself.

Edward James Hamell grew up in Syracuse, New York, where his parents bestowed upon him two key gifts: the capacity to stand in the squalls of existential angst, inhale, and laugh, and a phoenix-like capacity for rebirth. His extended, dissipated youth included the standard rock 'n' roll fare: jobs behind the counter between low-paying gigs, and an enduring romance with substances natural and synthetic. Hamell eventually traded in his Fender Stratocaster for a Gibson acoustic and an enduring engagement with sobriety. On Live From Edinburgh: The Terrorism of Everyday Life (2008), his award-winning show from the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, Hamell recalls how he long regarded sobriety much in the way he regarded baldness, marriage, and parenthood—with abject fear, only to learn that each "turned out to be a pretty good thing."

These trials turned out to be a pretty good thing for us, too, for Hamell subjected each to a musical alchemy that is fundamentally, undeniably rock 'n' roll, and one that I have followed devotedly for 20 years. I first saw Hamell in the late 1990s on the pass-the-hat circuit on Manhattan's Lower East Side. One icy night in 1997, in his Ramones t-shirt, black jeans, and blacker Chuck Taylor's, Hamell rumbled joyously through a set that included "Hoo Hoo Song" and "Open Up the Gates". On "Hoo Hoo," à la Sinatra, Hamell's voice "has a very strident, insistent sound in the top register", and he invites a "hoo-hoo" call-and-response with the audience, figuring "it's cathartic and it'll make you feel better … anxiety and depression build up in each and every one of us, and there's no place to let it out: this would be the place." On "Gates", a clarion call to St. Peter, following the death of his mother, Hamell sings tenderly with "a smooth lyrical sound in the middle register, and a very tender sound in the low."

That night also included "Big As Life", Hamell's dream of a lost encounter with Count Basie—an encounter dashed in part because of the exclusively righteous representations of white Americans in the pages of Life magazine. If Hamell's take on the racial divides in popular culture doesn't assume Elvis-esque proportions, it's not for lack of effort. Onstage, Hamell sweats profusely and, during the jowly reverb of his face solo, he sprays front-row attendees with an earnest, salty mist. He also beats his 1937 Gibson "like a red-headed stepchild" (see "Chris and the Angels"), and the next time I see him a large section of the guitar body has been patched.

Hamell's distinctive handsomeness, even when he dons a fedora, rarely evokes the traditional good looks of Frank Sinatra. Still, I see odd echoes of Sinatra in Hamell's persona. After Sinatra's tumultuous divorce from Ava Gardner, he found a new label, a new sense of purpose and, at age 49, recorded September of My Years (Reprise, 1965). Sinatra's meditation on his mortality resonates in nearly every groove of the album (50 then was today's 60). After the forbidding demise of his marriage of 22 years, Hamell knew, for the sake of his son, Detroit, that he needed to perform a phoenix-like resurrection. So Hamell shook the ashes from his wings and invited the world to watch him perform a new song on YouTube every day for a year. On day 352, Hamell debuted "The Happiest Man in the World". The song shows Hamell willing himself forward, wresting himself loose from despair in order to imagine the shape of his next album. Shortly thereafter, Hamell signed to New West Records and, at age 59, left more than 300 tracks on the cutting room floor in the assembly of The Happiest Man in the World (2014).

Happiest includes its plaintive moments ("Ain't That Love", "Blessed"), but the music remains punchy where it should be, and finds Hamell's radically democratic vision still intact. In "Your Mom is Hot", Hamell's dirty mind turns from the ghosts of bedrooms' past to the tableaux for future trysts, hoping to play footsie with a fellow parent with a prosthetic leg: "Just a tiny damage / but she won't go unravaged." His politic here remains personal and polemical, fully aware that Detroit—who provides vocals on "Your Mom"—himself is on the verge of dating (or whatever the kids call it these days).

On the hook-laden Tackle Box (New West Records, 2017), Hamell serves up a new batch of tales of confrontation and compassion for a more robustly democratic America. The album opens with "Safe", which invites the so-called misfits of the world to seek comfort with Hamell himself, a proud and unapologetic square peg. In "Not Aretha's Respect (Cops)", Hamell reprises the perils of looking for role models for his son among the ranks of men (and women) on the beat, finding too often a man-child with a badge, clinging to his ego and his gun. Hamell reduces the lesson on ethics, authority, and respect for Detroit, now 15, to the big fundamental: "now I'm trying to teach him to not get shot." In the track's coda, Hamell offers a terse, sympathetic nod to the parents and children with even less room for error: "And I'm white."

"The Mouthy B" represents a delightful addition to the devotional song cycle that includes "I'm Gonna Watch You Sleep", "Some Hearts", "Everything and Nothing", "Socializing", "Father's Advice", and "Together". It opens with Hamell's trademark steam-engine-inspired strumming and continues with a fountain of verse so earnest and affectionate it would make Mister Rogers blush.

I love to watch her lips form the words that shrouded
an accent and sashayed confidently down the torn brick alleys of my heart
Kicking over ashcans of failure and
blazing depressed, darkened corridors with an ice blue light

Behind the intense, feminine regal gesture
was a penal colony muscle of drunken pirates
and it was the juxtaposition that soaked my heart in passion

"The More You Know" reprises Hamell's concerns with fatherhood, and "How I Wanna Die" revisits the life chances articulated in the Clash's "Death or Glory". As the protagonist's dreams of death or glory recede, he finds two choices left: make "payments on a sofa or a girl". In real life, Hamell charts a different route, making ends meet via club dates, house parties, and sales of his paintings, as a late, great American troubadour. On "Wanna Die", Hamell's in a hip-hop frame of mind, and fondly recalls "all the times I met the fist / and all the times that I got pissed". He professes "I wanna die when my soul's fulfilled / I wanna die when my hatred's killed", but not before, as he's only three years removed from his own resurrection. Hamell also channels his inner LL Cool J on "She Ride It", name-dropping Susan Sarandon, Christiane Amanpour, and Mylie Cyrus within a laundry list of Prince-ly metaphors for female sexual prowess.

In concert, Hamell's unflinching self-awareness informs a montage of songs, asides, and asides within asides, often with a jump-cut ferocity worthy of filmmaker Michael Bay, but with much better results. Atop the shoulders of giants (Muddy Waters and Joe Strummer, to begin), Hamell continues to wrest new sounds from his Gibson, and to construct cinematic vignettes with his lyrics (see "Ballad of Chris"). Evidence of Hamell's inhibitions, though, remains scant. Much like his comrades on the stand-up circuit (see Bill Burr, Dave Chappelle, and Sarah Silverman), Hamell secures assent from concert audiences about the virtues of prosaic liberal causes: say, anti-homophobia and anti-racism. With their buy-in secured, Hamell drives his troops headlong into the territories of male sodomy and sexual relations with the differently abled, in service to his abolitionist imagination.

With Tackle Box, Hamell offers listeners old and new another impressive dose of aesthetic prowess, ineluctable charm, and humility, even. If a whiff of existential angst blows in, Hamell counterpunches with a tally of his blessings as a musician and a father, and a self-effacing measure of his own compassion. In these difficult times, much remains to be abolished. Along with his Gibson, Hamell still packs a sledgehammer.

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