Darren Hanlon, “The Book Thief”

From the musical history project Mick Thomas Presents Vandemonian Lags

Vandemonian Lags is a beautifully executed album, driven by Australian songwriting legend Mick Thomas. We are fortunate, here down under, to have such musicians; devoted, without ego, to nurturing the industry and the art, with a deep appreciation for its collaborative nature. Based on the documented stories of the people who populated the outdoor prison camp that was Van Diemen’s Land, the whole project, housed on The Founders and Survivors website, offers a multi-genre journey into both the music made, and the subject of colonial Tasmanian peoples’ history. Primary sources, videos of historical analysis, images, family trees, copies of the album lyrics and music…

There’s a live show, too, that Mick Thomas is planning to stage again next April. A nice touch is the collection of photographs that come with the album download, of all the contributing songwriters and performers, dressed up as convicts, looking appropriately dubious. “I am what you say I am, a laggard Vandemonian” is a line from the first song on the album. Well, so are we all, somewhere in our rough colonial history.

Track 7 of the album, “The Book Thief”, is a song about a convict who once stole a book. That’s the history bit. But the writer of this song, Darren Hanlon (see the attached image), points to another truth. Badly made words shape our culture for the worse. There are countless examples of that in Australian society today. The decay of even the desire for an authentic and creative means of expression, especially on the part of those who traditionally preserve those sorts of values, (like journalists and intellectuals) is a source of personal pain.

“The laws of the land are full of words ill-writ.” And so is the language. Words are an important part of my world, as a reader and a researcher. The cultural debasement of the language bothers me a great deal, and this is why “The Book Thief” resonates particularly with me. Find out which song does the same for you, here.

Hamell on Trial

Hamell on Trial is my latest musical enthusiasm. Recently, Ed Hamell offered 8 of his albums for free download: “First they’re free, then you have to pay a small fee, now they’re free again. WHAT A Yo-Yo!!! Rich? Send me a million!! Poor, pay what you can!! BUT: Spread the word to the uninitiated!!! That’s only fair!!!”

I believe it is, and it’s certainly not a hardship for me to go on about music. So here goes.

The main problem I had writing this was deciding how to describe his style. My temptation is to say, “just listen”, but you know, I’m supposed to a writer here. There should be a way to write halfway decent words, even about an artist who has a mad genius with them. “I like words. I’m a big word guy.” he told a BBC presenter last year. I laughed when I heard the podcast, of course, but after listening to several albums, my reaction to this statement is “well, duh.” The albums I have downloaded – for free, I admit- have given me an enormous amount of entertainment, and so the least I can do is wax lyrical in the appropriate place, as requested.

So I pondered that for a while, with some (excellently worded) input from Cosmo (a songwriter currently living in Wales, and an enthusiastic fan). Like the Australian comedian Tim Minchin, Hamell on Trial (that’s his name for his solo act) merges music and shaggy dog stories, narrating from a perspective of personal experience and compassionate intolerance. Really. It’s hilarious and tender all at once, with no sentimentality.

From the east coast of the United States (Syracuse, in fact), Ed Hamell has a style of performance that is very popular here in Australia (insofar as we have enough people for something to be “popular” of course). I think of it as “standup comedy with musical backing”. Hamell on Trial pushes this style into a sort of acoustic punk. Fast-paced, clean guitar riffs accentuate a frenetic and poetic torrent of words. My favourite is this one: “Ed’s Not Dead, Hamell Comes Alive“.

It’s a collection of live songs – chosen by Ed’s roadie- recorded on the tour where he opened for Ani DiFranco: “infinitely bigger crowds than I was used to, cutting my teeth in larger arenas“. It worked. You can tell how he went down with the crowd. Listen to it. Laugh. Then go find the rest. and you know, pay for some of them, or tell someone about them. Cosmo told me he has a “small but perfectly formed” audience when he is not borrowing Ani’s. I like that, but “large and perfectly formed” would be better.