Though short, bespectacled, and carrying an acoustic guitar, Hamell isn't your typical overwrought singer-songwriter type. Hamell -- or "Hamell on Trial," as he self-mockingly bills himself -- has a hard-boiled, straight-talking style cadged from the pages of Raymond Chandler by way of Lou Reed.
Born in Syracuse, Hamell has built a 15-year career on his entertaining, hard-strumming guitar style and scathing, piano-wire wit.
"High school honed my wit, because I was a short kid and I went to a tough school," Hamell says. "I got into a lot of fights, but I would try to avoid them as often as I could, so my verbal skills got pretty attuned."
A few years after graduating, while playing in local bands, he took a job slinging drinks at a local bar that doubled as a cocaine den. The small-time hustlers and local mafiosi he met there provided the inspiration for the noir criminal tales ("When Bobby Comes Down," "When Destiny Calls") he began writing for his guitar.
After releasing a couple of albums for Mercury Records in the mid-'90s, Hamell ended up on Ani DiFranco's Righteous Babe label for 2003's Tough Love. It features some of his most scathing rants, from "Halfway," his attack on celebrity-shilling ("Take the movie's name, tattoo it to your labia/Spread your legs for the camera, what difference would it make?/I mean fuck it, why go halfway?"), to the war-bashing "Don't Kill," in which God asks, "Was it the 'thou' part that threw you? Thou means 'you' . . . 'Shalt not' means 'don't.'"
Hamell's latest release, Songs for Parents Who Enjoy Drugs, is even more shaped by politics, as well as the growth of Hamell's son, Detroit (named in deference to Hamell's abiding love of such classic Motor City rock acts as the MC5 and the Stooges). The two come together on the track "Values," which draws a parallel between Hamell's son and the president. Over a light strum, Hamell relates his son's growing resistance to authority, culminating in a playground fight over toys.
"When I tell my son he has to share," Hamell sings, "he says, 'I'm an isolationist. That kid made me really fucking mad/I don't need him or NATO, God chose me. It's fate'/Values are tough to teach a child when the President's gone completely wild."
Hamell's vitriol finds an even better target in conservative commentators, whom he assails mercilessly on the appopriately named "Coulter's Snatch." Using the same kind of outrageous, outsized rhetoric and personal attack with which the talking heads make their money, Hamell sings, "Ann Coulter's got one stinky box," suggesting, "Let's engage her in debate/Let's make her deny it." He concludes with the warning, "You take the low road/I'll take the lower road/You've met your match."
"Subtle really isn't my forte," Hamell explains with a laugh. "Obviously, I'm really fed up. I try to be optimistic, but I see some of the revisionist history. Like Ann Coulter saying maybe McCarthy wasn't all bad. And I'm thinking, 'Really?'"
But the album's funniest and most poignant song is album-opener "Inquiring Minds." It takes the form of Hamell posing himself questions from the perspective of his child:
"Dad, did you ever do it with any woman besides Mom?/Did you ever see that Fellini movie, Satyricon?" Hamell sings. "Dad, did you ever steal from the store when you didn't have the bucks?/From what I remember, most of the stuff just fell off of trucks."
Hamell says the song was inspired by the question that tortures every parent: How much about your youthful indiscretions should you share with your children, when they inevitably ask?
"That was the conversation my wife and I had," Hamell says. "She said, 'I'm going to tell the truth. I made mistakes. This was not a good thing to do.' And I thought, 'I'm just going to lie.'"