"I'm a self-righteous p****, with a great big mouth/But I'm sick to death of mediocrity and lies." So sings Ed Hamell (aka Hamell on Trial), the acoustic "punk" on the brilliant anti-idiot culture song "Halfway." It's a pretty harsh self-appraisal that nevertheless says plenty about where this guy's coming from. And on Tough Love, he's parlayed that ethos into a new personal high-water mark of creativity. On his previous albums, Hamell showed that he's uncompromising, insightful, fearless, and uniquely talented. But with Tough Love, all the planets are in alignment. Dare one say that this is his most "commercial" album yet? In the best sense of the word, it's definitely his slickest. This time out of the gate, the songs are a little more distinctive and a tad less about Hamell's ever-shifting thrash rhythms -- though few acoustic guitarists work their instruments with more manic artistry than Hamell. And while he gladly embraces the description, he's too musically skilled and wryly cerebral to be a true punk. Still, when he lashes out at state-sanctioned killing ("Don't Kill") or spits the venom on the aforementioned "Halfway," you can certainly see the punk attitude coming through. But that's where the connection ends. The variegation of sounds and subjects help this album stand out. Few ballads can claim to be as purely heartrending as "Hail," the story of three true-life victims of prejudiced murders (Tina Brandon, Brian Deneke, and Matthew Shepard) meeting in heaven and deciding they're happier there because "We can be who we want to be." Hamell knows how to get things churning, too. His highway mantra-song "95 South" is as hypnotic as white-line fever, while his swipe at corporate corruption, "There Is a God," is like a Mac-truck boogie with Hamell's axe sounding extra throaty and some tough bass playing and rocksteady drumming (Glenn Diani and Eddie Stratton) adding extra beef. By contrast, "First Date" has an early-'60s, British Invasion sound -- though not many songs of that era hinge on narratives about dates that begin with a little OD'ing, blood, and hapless nudity. Also here are ditties about crims, creeps, and worrywarts, a "Gloria"-esque cut called "Oughta Go Around," and an enthusiastic tribute to the pills that helped Hamell recover from a near-fatal car accident ("Downs"). Sixteen tracks in all and not a dud among them. And the production job is exponentially better than on his last studio disc, the intriguing Choochtown. This is Hamell's first album for good friend Ani DiFranco's Righteous Babe Records and the indie queen joins in on a handful of tracks. But while Hamell gets a little help from his friends on this album, he still remains the ultimate one-man band of gypsies. In an era of mercenary songwriters churning out swill for pre-fab acts, here's a do-it-yourself guy -- part Taco Bell Chihuahua, part rottweiler -- who says a mouthful with every phrase and takes your attention hostage with every song. Tough Love is a great album and one of 2003's best, in fact.
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AllMusic Review by Adrian Zupp