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Michael Hall - The Song He Was Listening To When He Died Review

by Kevin Wierzbicki

As a long time denizen of Austin, Texas, Michael Hall has assimilated into his songbook the veritable cornucopia of sounds that the musically overachieving city has to offer. He has worked with former True Believers Alejandro Escovedo and Jon Dee Graham, both now well respected solo acts, members of Lyle Lovett's Large Band, Rosie Flores, Poi Dog Pondering and Walter Salas-Humara. Over the course of seven solo albums Hall has explored every facet of Americana but here he makes a delightful return to the sound he favored with his early band, the Wild Seeds. The Wild Seeds put out two albums that were an excellent introduction to Hall's songwriting style, mesmerizing with simple but meaningful lyrics on acoustic numbers like "Big Moon" one minute and rocking the rafters with "Debbie Came Back" the next. A similar vibe permeates The Song He Was… as he starts off with the plaintive "Out Where the Highways Roll," not so much a road song as it is a longing-for-the-road song. At first listen "Summer" seems to be a joyful celebration of the sweaty and carefree season but a closer listen reveals that the song is about trying to hold a relationship together until, for some reason, summer. The song's sadness is between the lines if you want it to be or overt if you feel like empathizing. Not many fun things to sing about from a stint in Vietnam but the character in "I Had a Girl in Dien Bien Phu" relishes the, uh, "down time" spent with a hooker. The song rocks along with a quirky electro-beat, a stark contrast to "Beautiful" where Hall accompanies himself on slowly-played Wurlitzer while turning phrases like "You'd never be so cruel/To an animal or a fool/How could you be so wrong/Could you be so out of tune?" The title song comes mid-album and it's as if Hall gives himself a break from more serious matters with some Jimmy Buffet-style fun. And while "The Song He Was…" is a lighthearted romp, "America" is downright funny. The song has a regal beginning that makes you think it's a patriotic ode but it quickly turns into a joke at your expense by being about the rock band America, they of "Horse with No Name" fame. By the time the mandolin flourishes of "The Wedding" are over, so is half of the disc, and at this point Hall has delivered more than most do on full albums. One effect that Hall uses throughout that will surprise longtime fans is the interjection of synth sounds---weird blips and gurgles---that seem at odds with otherwise demure arrangements. The technique comes to a boil on "Captain, Captain" where Hall rocks like Neil Young during his Trans phase. Clearly not a minute of Hall's musical life has been wasted and this album lives up to what you would expect from a journeyman songwriter.

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Michael Hall - The Song He Was Listening To When He Died

Label:City Hall / Freedom

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