By Jay Stringer
Mike’s post on Sunday got me thinking about crime fiction set to music. There are a few specific albums I’ve had in mind to write about for a while now, but some of them pretty predictable so I always hold off.
Does the world need another thousand-word love letter to Nebraska?
One album that doesn’t get talked about often enough, and it a personal favourite of mine, is very much a crime novel. More accurately, it’s probably more of an anthology of interlocking narratives and character studies that all revolve around the same seedy night in (probably) New York.
It’s Choochtown, by Hamell on Trial. All cards on the table here; I have written about this album online before. In fact, when Patti recently invited me to contribute to her forgotten books, I almost cheated and wrote about this album.
Hamell has said he’d been reading a lot of Elmore Leonard before recording this album, and it does sound like a crime writer picked up a guitar and let loose. The sound is jagged and fast. It’s not rock, it’s not folk, and it’s not punk. It’s definitely not hip-hop, and if you called it a concept album it would probably kick your teeth in. Whatever it is, it manages to combine almost all of the things I love in music into a taught, angry little album.
It starts off with a confrontation; the narrator talks (possibly from beyond the grave) and dismisses everyone in the room with a foul-mouthed tirade that lasts just over a minute. Its serves as the perfect lead in to the world of the album, but also as a last chance to turn away warning the listener. It’s daring you to give up on it.
Once past that, things kick off. We dive head first into a night at the Toddle House diner on the night a junkie named Bobby causes a scene. Hamell gives us characters in few lines;
“I don’t want to be here, when Bobby gets clear, and he gives you that weird eye, I think I better say goodbye.”
And listen carefully during this song. At first it seems a fun, frenetic put down of a loser. But in the background there’s stuff happening. As you learn though the rest of the album, there’s a guy locked in the freezer. There’s a drug deal gone wrong. There’s a PI working a case and a love struck musician. This album reveals itself over time and repeated listens; it’s actually telling the same story from several different points of view. Watch out for the key names that get dropped; Joe, McCluskey, Chooch, Bobby.
In some songs, the links are made obvious. The character Chooch is mentioned in one song, then narrates another. He also gets cameos in other songs, including an appearance ‘on the run’ that took me way too long to notice. He gains and loses money. In one song you meet a girl and then in a later song you meet the boyfriend. Any time you hear mention of someone in one song, chances are they get to speak their mind later -or earlier- on the album.
There are guys losing their hearts and minds over women, and people making dumb mistakes in the name of money or sex. And it is full of classic noir lines;
“She was brilliantly doomed, I got a kick how he loved her”
There’s an atmospheric PI narrative, driven by an insistent acoustic guitar and a melancholy trumpet. It slowly reveals a story of unrequited love mixed up in the murder of a drug dealer (perhaps the corpse who opened the album?) and a bartender. Its taught, and a great testament to its craft is that you can read the lyrics as a short story in their own right.
“His ashes, Cyn? Did you cut ‘em with strychnine? She wasn’t hiding nothing, when her eyes met mine.”
One of the darker moments of humour comes off the track Joe Brush, which tells the story of a musician driven half insane by a girlfriend. In a fit of heart broken rage, while ‘he thought about what’s near and dear and he remembered Van Gough’s ear,’ Joe mails his playing finger to his girl.
“She’d like to give the finger to Joe, but she moved to San Francisco with some money from an inheritance, and Joe now plays a mean slide guitar”
Of course, if you listen a little closer to the album, you know Susan didn’t get an inheritance. Hanging around in the background of all the songs is a drug deal gone wrong, though we’re left to piece the details together ourselves. The only real clue to the overall narrative is a track called Shout Outs, In which Hamell portrays a late night DJ letting many of the albums characters call in and leave messages.
Oh, and did I mention the partying? There is a lot of that.
"Oh we are gonna party, when Judy gets back from the rehab. She aint gonna know. She might not even be invited”
And at certain points in the narrative, Hamell speaks to us directly, giving us a Rod Sterling-like assessment of the state of affairs. This leads to one of my favourite moments;
“The discerning listener figures this is too good to be true. Joe’s gonna mess it up….he did. Could be the Garden of Eden, could be original sin, could be the cocaine or bourbon; this aint no judgement call.”
The worst thing about all of this? I looked the album up as I wrote this, to make sure it was still available. I found the cruel reminder that this came out nine years ago. This album that makes me remember drunken nights with friends, trying to play along to the songs, and being very young, came out nearly a decade ago. Where does the time go?
Enough of that. Check this album out. It’s coming up on a time when people are starting to compile ‘best of the decade’ lists, and this album still has time to sneak into a few more.