If you like folksy, bluegrassy, skifflepunky, lyrically deft and tenderhearted wonderfulness, you need to give Marcellus Hall’s new solo record, The First Line, a listen. It’s out this week. This is Marce:
I first met the accomplished musician/writer/illustrator at the Mercury Lounge in NYC in 1998 after my shambolic, sloppy-drunk gig opening for The Gunga Din. Honestly? NOT the best night… until Marce found the dark corner I was hiding in, said “Hey, I like your style,” and asked me to play violin with his band. Something about the guy made me say yes without blinking. Maybe it was because he reminded me of Conan O’Brien’s younger, more soft-spoken brother: tall, thin, fair, somewhat ageless, he had that same quick and kindly wit. After saying yes, I realized I should probably ask him what sort of music he made.
“Well, I used to be in this band called Railroad Jerk.” Oh, yeah! I had some notion of Railroad Jerk. Weren’t they one of the first bands to sign to Matador? They were on that What’s Up, Matador? compilation with John Spencer Blues Explosion, Helium, Guided by Voices, Liz Phair, Yo La Tengo, etc…
“Yeah. That’s done,” he said. “Now I have a band called White Hassle.” White Hassle? “Yeah, um. It’s a pun. You know, White Castle.” Well, hey. Why not. I remember much of my decade in NYC as a sad, scrambling time, but all of those shows and records I did with Marce’s “junk folk pop ’80s rock electro-blues” outfit (in cahoots with drummer Dave Varenka and an assortment of other wonderful players) are among my fondest memories.
In more recent years, Marce has been crafting a new sound. It’s a bit softer, more contemplative than the huge, herky-jerky energy of his previous work, but those razor-edged lyrics, rich guitar chords, feverish harmonica solos and spot-on vocals are bright and sharp as ever.
Marce has always been a thoughtful guy, and while his songcraft might seem like straight-up, uncomplicated acoustic country fare on the surface, listen more closely and you’ll realize there’s a lot more going on with his lyrics and presentation than the usual, weary old “my dog died and the old lady left me” American folk tradition scalp-taking. Marce’s wry, self-aware humor is evident in references to emailing, texting, even the act of songwriting itself in the title track. From a recent review over at The Observer:
Hank Williams, Woody Guthrie, Dylan, and the Everly Brothers are obvious reference points—Americana fans will love this album—but Hall doesn’t really go in for nostalgia, and careful listeners will also hear echoes of the Modern Lovers, Einstürzende Neubauten, and New York’s No Wave bands. Like them, Hall lets the sounds of his city seep into the recordings; the tracks sound simultaneously organic and artificially distressed.
In addition to making great music and poetic lyrics, Marce does wonderful illustration work for The New Yorker, the Village Voice and others. You can learn more about that and other facets of his career at his personal website. Obviously, by now, you’re aware that I can’t say enough good things about this fella. If your curiosity is piqued and if you’re not already familiar with his work, I almost envy you: you’ve got 20+ years of fantastic Marcellus Hall music to get acquainted with. I heartily recommend starting with The First Line, and going from there.