Tackle Box’s opening two tracks grab Donald Trump by the pussy that he is and refuse to let go. The first starts off by sampling one of literally hundreds of infamous quotes from the election campaign: ‘I’d like to punch him in the face’ (talking about a protester). The song’s called ‘Safe’. The second worries aboutbringing up a son in a country where the leader and first lady have no ‘spiritual core’. The song’s called ‘The More You Know’.
As you can tell from these examples, irony abounds on Tackle Box. Most ironic of all are four interludes, interspersed across the album, about a Froggy who goes to school and grows up to have a Froggy wife and kids. These cartoonish moments seem wildly incongruous at first. But then it occurs that there’s currently an orange buffoon sitting inside that serious institution we call the White House, so why not have a green frog interrupting the flow of a serious political album? It’s no more or less unlikely. All rules are out of the window in America, and on this album.
Not that Hamell on Trial, a.k.a. middle-aged singer-songwriter Ed Hamell, has been much beholden to rules in the past. He defies easy categorisation, though he’s been classed as ‘anti-folk’ in some quarters; this doesn’t help much because that subgenre is itself defined by difficulty (the description on Wikipedia is ‘artists [who] seem to observe the “rules” of music, but then deliberately break them’). Hamell sure doesn’t sing pretty – in fact he barely sings at all, often preferring the spoken word with dramatic inflections. He ain’t Joan Baez, that’s for sure. So I guess that makes him anti-folk, but to me he feels more rock & roll, because of his no-bullshit voice and often harsh, difficult, and confrontational manner.
Take for instance the standout track ‘Not Aretha’s Respect (Cops)’, an anti-cop diatribe with the wordiest and most powerful chorus of the year: ‘Hey fuck face/I’m trying to teach my kid there’s some authority that needs to be respected/But we have no respect for you/Now I’m trying to teach him to NOT GET SHOT!’ Hamell plays the guitar on top with such force it’s like standing next to a helicopter, being blown backwards by the air surge. It’s the force of righteous anger, and it feels like the spirit of rock & roll to me (check out the video below, and make sure to hang around for the killer punchline at the end).
Yet rock & roll was never just about anger, and neither is Hamell on Trial. So on top of all the froggy numbers, there’s also an ode to dancing and several tributes to his wife. These moments fight Trump and racism in a more subtle way: with love, or as Hamell might put it a ‘spiritual core’. It’s a nice sentiment, one that unfortunately doesn’t quite work due to Hamell’s limited vocal ability and relexive sarcasm (he should perhaps have gone down the Stephin Merritt route, as on 69 Love Songs, of using replacement singers to sweeten the less sarcastic moments). Lana Del Rey played around with the same idea more convincingly on ‘When the World Was at War We Kept Dancing’, which used her softly floating voice to dream away the world’s troubles with a touching naïveté that Hamell is a tad too old and cynical to muster.
Hamell occasionally goes too far with his cynicism, such as on the cruel takedown of an Australian ‘Mouthy B’. The song’s savage verbally but lacks the rapier wit of peak Dylan; it leaves a sour taste. So does the lewd ‘She Ride It’, which is rather like that unfunny Father John Misty line about bedding Taylor Swift in the Oculus Rift dragged out to nearly four minutes.
But Hamell’s guitar never stops, even on these lesser moments, and neither does his eagerness to entertain – which separates him from the likes of Father John Misty. Hence why I’ll always prefer him to Misty, and to most other modern folk/anti-folk singers.