Brothers I’ve never had, Friends I’ve never met
This record by B. Hamilton of Oakland, CA has me thinking beyond the average amount of thinking I do when I get ready to write about the usual form, function and feel of the music once I’ve fully digested it all. No, this one, named Everything I Own Is Broken, made me think of the older brothers I had growing up who weren’t really my older brothers, about friends I have not yet met, about Kickstarter (but only slightly… everyone but me has an opinion about Kickstarter), about Hell’s Angels and their summer rides out to Bass Lake, California, about my undying love of American Blues and it’s doggedly persistent (against all odds) progression into the current musical landscape, still altering it in ways that cannot yet be measured, like the ancient glacier it is.
This elpee, itself assembled against the odds of precious-few-will-actually-give-a-fuck by Ryan Christopher Parks (vocals and guitar), bassist Andrew Macy and drummer Bill Crowley isn’t perfect nor is it necessarily innovative, but GODDAMMIT these songs have truckloads of soul, and that’s what matters most, not just in music but IN EVERYTHING THERE IS TO CARE ABOUT.
If it were not for the plausibly wild enthusiasm of one Conan Neutron (who himself is currently swimming his way upstream against an objective current of apathy toward SXSW with his wonderfully optimistic rock (and roll) outfit Victory and Associates), Everything I Own Is Broken never would have made it to my ears, but that’s Conan for you. As far as I know, he has nothing at stake with B. Hamilton beyond friendship, some Oakland rock kinship, and an appreciation for what they’ve done. This isn’t the first time Conan has turned me on to a new act, and I’m sure it won’t be the last. Conan Neutron has become one of the best friends I’ve not yet met.
The temptation to drop the names of comparable acts and possible influences is always lurking nearby when I try to describe a sound, but this week, I’m not going to do it. I won’t tell you about how this elpee opens up with a forty-foot monster electric guitar wave reminiscent of an aging sideburned Canadian riff hero who, like rust, never sleeps. I won’t spend any time rolling through the list of the Mississippi giants who I swear are lingering with great interest in the echoes of Ryan Christopher Parks slide guitar, a staple feature on this record. There is a not-so-obvious symmetry between the resigned loveliness of “Gold Tooth” and more than a few compositions by a mixed-gender band that does little else than tour relentlessly on its back catalogue, seemingly determined to make hay until the sun finally sets on their considerable legacy and reduces it to ashes, but that’s not what’s important about B. Hamilton.
What’s most important about this record is that it truly could’ve come out forty years ago, or last year, or just pick a year. At the risk of sounding like I’m hyperventilating hyperbole, Everything I Own Is Broken is timeless. It’s a rock record based loosely on American Blues, graced by songwriting that reaches deep into the eternal theme-bag of human emotion. There is no expiration date on this stuff.
I don’t have any brothers. I do have a sister, a younger sister, and I love her, but I wanted an older brother. I always thought it would have been nice to have had someone older who could’ve broken my parents in for me, y’know… someone who could’ve set a benchmark of car crashes, arrests, and drunkenness so that my unbridled teen idiocy wouldn’t have come as such a shock to Mom and Dad. I also wanted a brother who might’ve kicked the asses of the glue-sniffing pricks that lived down the block for me. Instead of an older brother, I had the older brothers of friends who more or less adopted me, and I gleefully adopted them. This was a long time ago, and many of my adopted older brothers were Vietnam veterans, genuinely off-kilter guys who not only refused to step back into normal societal circles when they returned, but stayed a few blocks away. They loved to drink beer, make fun of everything that was in the least bit conventional, and listen to rock and roll at volumes that caused the Kenosha municipal noise ordinances to be rewritten every summer. At a young age, they taught me how to swear, how to fight, and turned me onto “Exile On Main Street” (as well as that wonderful London Sessions record Bill Wyman, Charlie Watts, Eric Clapton and others did with Howlin’ Wolf, still one of my all-time favorite elpeez), Commander Cody And His Lost Airmen, and John Prine. Most of those guys are dead now, but I think of them often, increasingly so as I get older.
I drove a crappy gray-primer colored AMC Gremlin up to Winter that weekend. It had blown out speakers hooked up to an 8-track player. After a drunken drive on dirt lumber roads, between Cream’s Disraeli Gears and whatever else they’d be playing back at camp, I would’ve opened up the back hatch and let everyone have it.
Everything I Own Is Broken sounds like this: Parks’ raw, distorted guitar power, coupled with his vocal ferocity in “Me and Margaret Counting Countdowns” provides plenty of muscle to start things off. “Outside A Hexagram” swells and contracts with waves of feedback. “Miss Carolina” sneakily transitions from a back-porch boogie-devil beat with supernaturally instinctive slide guitar to walls of boiling waveforms with THEE MOST incredible subtlety. Rock rides hard on the back of The Blues, and that’s the sound my adopted older brothers loved the most. There are gorgeous moments too, like in “Gold Tooth,” when a loud-yet-gentle guitar noodle is matched by a violin, lifting the entire composition from earthy to ethereal in a mere handful of notes. As if all that beauty wasn’t enough, Parks sings this:
She traded cigarettes for deep breaths
She gave up whiskey for wine
She gave into foreign concepts
Like consistency and time
Resignation and adaptation…there’s two more foreign concepts. Not things my adopted older brothers were good at or even capable of, but in their quieter moments, these were traits that they recognized in others, and had respect for. Most of them died at an age I’m now on the verge of myself, dead after years of drinking, drug use, divorce, unemployment, jail, stretches of homelessness and such. B. Hamilton’s title track would’ve been their song. Then again…
“On Borrowed Time,” with its easy beat and acoustic foundation, sounds perfect in the small hours near a campfire past its prime. Before the song ends, you already know the chorus, and you can’t help but sing it out loud:
Here’s to the night
Here’s to whatever’s left
On borrowed time
Or an eternal holiday
Yeah. That’s yer song, guys.