"Choochtown" by Hamell On Trial
This is one of my favourite albums ever! I still can’t believe how good this record is, how clever and creative. It’s unique and I thoroughly recommend that you get hold of a copy (click on the album cover above to be redirected to Hamell's Bandcamp page). It will enrich your life.
Hamell On Trial is the nom de plume for Ed Hamell, a singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist from Syracuse, New York. The first thing I ever heard by him was a live version of his track ‘John Lennon’ from a free CD that came with Uncut magazine in 2002. This track alone made me aware that the man was a genius. Soon after, my friend Magda McQueen lent me a copy of Choochtown. She had bought it from a second hand record shop because of its interesting cover and she thought I might like it.
Some of the reviews I have read about Choochtown online say that it is “not quite a concept album”. I find this strange because if this isn’t a concept album, I’d like to know what is! Apart from a few autobiographical songs on the first side and the final couple of tracks dedicated to Bill Hicks, Choochtown is basically a Raymond Chandler-esque who-dunnit set to music, with you, the listener, acting as a detective in a murder mystery involving small town crooks, big-time drug dealers, a jaded private investigator, a bored local radio DJ and some friends who hang out at a late night eatery, the Toddle House. Different characters are featured in each song singing about their own experiences, so as the album goes along you have to piece the story together from their evidence. It’s a bit like playing Cluedo.
In addition to its unique and compelling structure, Choochtown is also hilariously funny. It’s no wonder Ed worships Bill Hicks; they share a vicious political wit and a deep humanity. Go and see Ed live – he doesn’t take any prisoners but he’ll have you laughing until it hurts. He tours the UK every couple of years.
Musically, Choochtown is clearly influenced by The Velvets and The Stooges; it’s rocking but lo-fi (it was recorded at Ed's home and the basements of some of his friends in NYC) and Ed does some brilliant drumming (check out his snare fills at the end of ‘Judy’.) But you can also detect a passion for early blues players in his fingerpicking style on some of the gentler tracks. It is no coincidence that Hamell’s axe is a 1937 Gibson L-00.
I won’t spoil the story by telling you who-dunnit. Get hold of a copy of the album (here) and work it out for yourself by meeting Bobby, Chooch, Nancy, Judy, Uncle Morris, Joe Brush, McClusky, “Baldy” (Hamell himself) and the rest of the gang. I guarantee you won’t regret it.