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The Song He Was Listening to When He Died

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Album Review

In the decade-and-a-half-plus since Austin's Wild Seeds called it quits, the band's guiding light, singer/songwriter/guitarist Michael Hall, has chosen a number of different configurations within which to present his increasingly expanding artistic vision. Most recently, that meant working another band, the Woodpeckers, but for this outing, the eighth under his own name, Hall is front and center: Although he's got plenty of help from co-producers Jud Newcomb and George Reiff — both of whom contribute various guitars and keyboards — and a small army of additional musicians and singers, Hall is never out of earshot. And that's just fine, because he's worth paying close attention to. Alternately witty and dreamy, wistful and hopeful, his wordsmithing is tight and his storytelling gripping. You can't listen to "I Had a Girl in Dien Bien Phu" and not want to know what became of the Vietnam War-era girl who "knew what to do," especially with some help from "a little red wine, some Edith Piaf tunes." With its cheesy '80s-style synth licks, spacy samples, wah-wah guitar and thumping beat, Hall's spoken word narrative lures and doesn't let go. "America" is another one that pulls some tricks out of its hat. Just when Hall's got you thinking he's all flag-waving patriotic and jingoistic, he lets the genie out of the bottle: he's not talking about that America, he means the lame-ass '70s soft rock group: "Some said they stole from Neil Young, some said they stole from Bread, some said they stole from the Eagles but they never stole from Free." Shazam. But all's not tongue in cheek or, for that matter, cheeky. In the straightforward "Beautiful," that's all there is to know. Singing atop a moody Wurlitzer piano (which Hall plays), Newcomb's fuzzy guitar and Joey Shuffield's industrial percussion, Hall declares, "If it were up to me you'd see how beautiful you are," no smart-alecky comeback in sight. Although Hall prefers keeping his instrumental bed uncluttered and natural, there is a tendency here to rely more than necessary on synthetics and other electro-atmospherics. "Captain, Captain," something of an update of the Beach Boys' "Sloop John B," ties its sense of desperation and foreboding to claustrophobic, grunge-boogie guitar and trashcan percussion; it works, but ultimately feels forced. The song is offset nicely by "Amelia," however, whose folk-rock recalls Blonde on Blonde-era Dylan or perhaps Simon & Garfunkel's Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme. Julie Lowry's harmony vocal sweetens Hall's, and Randy Franklin's chipper mandolin line turns the unabashed love paean into one of the albums most memorable songs. There's an honesty and comfortableness pervading The Song He Was Listening to When He Died — even if we never do find out, in the title track, just what song that was.


Genre: Rock

Years Active: '90s, '00s

After spending time at the University of Texas journalism school and The Austin Chronicle in the late '70s, Texas modern rocker Michael Hall joined the Wild Seeds. The band released three albums: Life Is Grand (Life in Soul City) (1985), Brave, Clean & Reverent (1986) and Mud, Lies & Shame (1988). Wild Seeds broke up in 1989 after their label, Passport, filed bankruptcy; however, they had already gained a cult following around the country. In 1990, Hall issued his first solo album, Quarter to Three....
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The Song He Was Listening to When He Died, Michael Hall
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