Two years ago, before he became an Uncut regular with his own monthly column, Ed Hamell?aka Hamell On Trial?released an album called Choochtown that we described at the time as Mean Streets: The Musical. We weren’t joking, either. Choochtown teemed with the same raw vitality, violence and profane humour as Scorsese’s early masterpiece and was populated by a similarly colourful cast of hoodlums, hookers and hustlers, big-time gangsters, small-time hoods and Chooch himself, a freelance Mob bone-breaker. The thing really played out like a great fucking movie, with parts for De Niro, Keitel, Pesci and all your other favourite wiseguys. And what a soundtrack it came with!
Musically, Hamell drew inspiration from Dylan, the Velvets, the Modern Lovers, MC5, Stooges, Patti Smith and The Clash. Recorded mostly in the basement of his Brooklyn home, Choochtown was rock’n’roll stripped to the sinew, gristle and bone; hard as nails, noisy, confrontational. A fucking belter, in other words. And the good news for all the friends and fans Hamell’s made since is that Tough Love, released on Ani DiFranco’s Righteous Babe imprint, is even better, and finds Hamell moving up in the world somewhat. Former Stone Roses and Radiohead producer John Leckie has helmed four tracks and guest musicians include DiFranco herself, guitarist Gary Lucas (The Magic Band, Gods And Monsters, Jeff Buckley), bassist Ernie Brooks (the Modern Lovers) and drummer Jonathan Kane (Swans).
Choochtown famously opened with the cheerfully obscene monologue “Go Fuck Yourself”?Hamell as Travis Bickle, preparing for a one-man apocalypse, hilarious and scary. Tough Love opens with a track that makes you snap similarly to attention. It’s called “Don’t Kill”?a paint-blistering John Leckie-produced rant that sounds like Bill Hicks backed by the Plastic Ono Band, with Ed giving voice to an angry God. The same searing anger informs “Halfway”, in which Hamell turns a flamethrower on media whores, rock messiahs, trigger-happy world leaders, Creed fans and?taking a democratic view on all this?himself. “I’m a self-righteous prick, with a great big mouth!” he announces over a firewall of guitars and a rhythm section convincingly impersonating a brawl in a Docklands tavern. Great chorus, too, with Ed breezily repeating the refrain, “I mean, FUCK IT!”
With the passing of Warren Zevon, Hamell’s now officially the best exponent of song noir in the business. One of the enduring pleasures of Choochtown was the literary sensibility Hamell brought to hardboiled vignettes like “The Long Drive”, and there are a couple of great examples here of his taste for pulp fiction. The stark, monochromatic “When Destiny Calls” opens with a couple of hoods named Noodles and Gimp mistakenly boosting a car full of coke belonging to a ruthless mob overlord, which does for them and sets in train a bloody sequence of double-cross, murder and recrimination. “Looked bad ahead, looked worse behind,” Hamell muses, heading for Memphis, cops and mobsters closing in for the kill.
On the title track the narrator makes an unusual career move, quitting his job somewhat dramatically by shooting his boss. Arriving home earlier than usual, he explains to his wife that they’ve got to run for it, scarper south for the border. The gal’s game, and pretty soon they’re on the proverbial lam. Four or five verses and a lot of dead people later, they’re at the border?where they decide to go back the way they’ve come, to make another violent pass on a terrified population. Why don’t they just run? “I guess we’re having too much fun,” the song’s anonymous narrator smiles over stalking guitar, Morricone whistling, Hamell’s dimestore take on “Nebraska” replacing Springsteen’s grainy newsreel with a gun-metal and neon sheen straight out of Tarantino.
American violence is pretty central to Tough Love. One of the key songs here is a brief but overwhelming number called “Hail”. It’s basically Ed’s “Everybody Hurts”, and in just over a couple of minutes it evokes a whole universe of pain. It’s not really much more than a description of a conversation between three young Americans whose lives are perhaps most notable for the way they were lost. They’re in heaven now, meeting for coffee, looking back obliquely on the terrible things that happened to them, which you may have heard about. Teena Brandon?who was played by Hilary Swank in Boys Don’t Cry?reversed her name and sexuality, becoming Brandon Teena and passing herself off as a man. Discovered by a couple of gung-ho rednecks, she was raped and murdered. Matthew Shepherd was a young gay man from Laramie, Wyoming who, because of his sexuality, was kidnapped, pistol-whipped so hard his skull collapsed into his brain, tied to a fencepost in freezing temperatures, tortured, set on fire and left to die. Which he did, after being found 17 hours later. Brian Deneke was a punk from Amarillo, Texas, run over in a parking lot for kicks. These were people who died because they dared somehow to be different, something for which they were victimised and murdered.
It’s not all guns and gloom, however. Elsewhere, there’s the robust humour of “First Date”, “Dear Pete” and “Worry Wart”. On the rampaging “Downs”, Ed even manages to find something funny about the car crash that a couple of years ago nearly killed him. Elsewhere the growing variety of Hamell’s writing is evident on “All That Was Said”, a duet with DiFranco, the surprising “A Little Concerned, That’s All”?a vividly imagined description of heaven as, literally, a ghost town, set to Ed’s one-man impersonation of The Who. “Everything And Nothing” and “Oughta Go Around”, meanwhile, are celebrations of love and rock’n’roll that plug straight into Ed’s enduring love for Dylan, the VU and the Modern Lovers. The album closes with “Detroit Lullaby”, a song for Hamell’s young son, named after the city that gave us Motown and the MC5 and touching enough to make a grown man cry.
If none of this is enough to recommend the album to you outright, let it be said in final recognition that Tough Love is dedicated to Joe Strummer, who I like to think would’ve loved it as much as I do.