Good music makes the art of keeping quiet a pleasure. If you go into an album with the plan of reviewing or critiquing it, you expect to be forming opinions as you go - maybe reviewing liner notes or jotting down an observation here and there. If you’re with others, you might even make comments aloud.
After listening to Stu Hamm’s latest work, “Just Outside of Normal,” I blinked my eyes, then looked up to find I hadn’t read any liner notes, formed any opinions, uttered aloud (or jotted down) a single word. The music had been so engrossing that all I did was listen. I disappeared into it with such relish that I didn’t move or speak until Hamm said it was time to go.
So I listened to it again - several more times, actually - each time remembering to take some notes! Then I decided to take myself back to the feeling of the first time, and combine that with some of the more traditional observations.
Stu Hamm doesn’t just play music, he plays with music. He bats it around like a cat with a ball - pounces on it, shoots it across the room, chases after it, buries it into tight corners and then sets it free to start over again. But as with all cats, behind the cavalier outer image of play lurks an animal with formidable skill. And so it goes with Stu Hamm.
The first thing I noticed were the harmonies. The songs are so well blended with chords, tones, and undertones, that I almost didn’t know where to listen. Hamm is a master at finding music within itself, and then giving each voice its own place apart from (and along with) its neighbours.
Next, I read up about the fantastic lineup of guest musicians. Joe Satriani, Robert Fripp, Frank Gambale, Jude Gold, and Mark McGee bring their guitar talents to the project. Then there’s Terry Disley on keyboards and John Burr on piano; Alex Murzyn and Karl Theobald on the saxophones; Carlos Reyes on violin; Stanton Moore, Alan Hertz, and John Mader on drums, Allison Lovejoy on the accordion; Malika Alaoui gives us the vocals on the final track, and even brother Bruce Hamm joins in, playing the dotar on the title track!
This list is quite impressive, and each contributor falls into Hamm’s vision with a worthy understanding of what the man wants to accomplish and where he wants to go.
Hmmm, cats in packs? It’s possible, but you have to have the right alpha cat at the helm.
The album has nine songs, and each is a beauty unto itself, but when they come together, they form a different identity. These songs belong together. Is this a concept album? Nah, I think it transcends that description. It feels more like a trip. A traveling journey through many different concepts, many different feelings.
So...back to the beginning.
I start my trip with the opening number, called “The Obligatory Boogie.” Nice. It chugs along with a stomping beat, lead by Hamm’s infectious bass licks, and followed closely behind by the hard-driving, distorted guitar. Right away, your foot’s a’tappin’ and you’re rarin’ to go! I smile and fasten my seatbelt.
But when it’s over - instead of ramping up - I am eased right down into the pensive “Going to California,” a remake of the Zeppelin tune. This version has a much deeper resonance than the original and Hamm’s bass dives all the way to the bottom. The crying guitar, and soft, dancing cymbals and snares make it all the more meaningful. And because it’s an instrumental version, the voice of the missing lyrics must come through the instruments. Hamm’s bass is that voice, and it speaks just as softly and thoughtfully as the melancholy lyrics ever could. And so the journey continues...
Third up is a wonderful, lively rendition of “The Clarinet Polka.” Heh, heh...ever hear it done with bass guitar as lead instrument instead of a clarinet? Joined up by the accordion as second banana? I’ve never before heard a polka with so much rumble. Wait for the ending. Pure theatre! And so the ride takes a twist...
As the polka settles away, I find myself at the door of “Windsor Mews.” With the musical trip being so diverse thus far, I wonder where this number will take me.
Hmm...harmonious, yet tremulous bass chords. A little disquieting. The tune finally settles into a soulful, weeping guitar that reminds me of David Gilmour. I miss songs like this. It’s the style. Creative and new, yet so solid and familiar. I wish there were more songs like this out there. The journey is starting to get really retrospective...and introspective. And speaking of introspective...
Up comes the title track, “Just Outside of Normal.” I have learned that Normal, Illinois is where Hamm grew up, and I can’t imagine a single resident of this town who doesn’t measure him or herself by the yardstick of that name.
Based on the way Hamm presents this number, I'd say he has both fond and troublesome memories of Normal. The song has such a gentle, pleasing peace to it, but it also makes me sad. I’m a little outside of Normal myself, and Hamm definitely finds the spot. I’ve never been to Normal, but I think the sentiment exists in us all. Childhood. A lot of wonderful memories, and maybe some “coulda, woulda, shoulda.” Absolutely beautiful tune. Listen for the dotar.
I am now swinging like a baby in a HAMMock on the porch. Smiling. And just...listening.
The man now surprises me by including a gorgeous version of “Adagio” (also known as the Adagio in G minor). So subtle and controlled - different altogether from any other version I’ve ever heard - with a bass guitar in the lead. Proof positive that Hamm doesn't know the meaning of the word "boundaries."
Listen to this one and try to remember that this is the same crew who just recently finished playing The Clarinet Polka without a clarinet. Craftsmanship, pure and simple. I’m no longer lying down. I just sat up. And I think my jaw is dropping.
The final trio of songs in this odyssey starts with “Big Roller.” At first blush, it reminds me of the song “Istanbul,” as done by They Might Be Giants (or The Four Lads, depending on how far back you go). A little exotic, a little saucy, and a whole lotta dance. A nice upswing from the serious Adagio piece. I think Hamm is reminding me not to get too comfortable in the contemplative numbers that have come before.
Okay, Stu, I’m on my feet! Where to next?
The penultimate song is called “Uniformitarianism.” The word is defined as “The theory that all geologic phenomena may be explained as the result of existing forces having operated uniformly from the origin of the earth to the present time.” A very unusual description for a song, but quite right when you hear it. It echoes with the steady patterns of coming-around-again newness and rebirth. Formation, growth, rejuvenation. Pick your adjective. You’re waking up. You’re opening your eyes for the thousandth time...or the first time.
And up on the distant hill stands a lone guitar player. He calls to the dawn. The journey has just begun...again.
As the sun rises, along comes the last piece, called “Lucidity.” I finally get to hear the vocal contributions of Malika Alaoui, and to me, what she sings about is hope and wonderment. “My mind is the sky,” she sings. And she's right.
Look up and think about what you can accomplish, and what might lie ahead for us all.
Hamm does everything with the bass but dress it up and take it out for dinner. Slaps, taps, picking, plucking, finger style - there isn't a sound he can't make with this instrument. But then I'm sure you all know that. We've all seen the videos. We've all watched as he and his partner go through their paces. To explain to the members of Thunder Row how well he plays is just preaching to the choir.
Anyway...this is where Stu Hamm has taken me. It’s been a breathless journey of smiles and even a few tears. Albums like this are rare, filled with both generosity and self-exploration. I am completely thrilled with what he has played for me, and honoured to have been allowed inside for those moments when he played for himself.
So my final question is: Where do you think this album would take you?
All you have to do is listen.
© 2011 CL Seamus for Thunder Row