Apparently a well known figure on the Dallas roots rock scene Tommy Hale was a member of cult rockers Swank Deluxe before breaking off to record two solo albums in 2003 and 2008. Blabber’n’Smoke was oblivious to the man until Magnificent Bastard, his third album, a mere eight years after his second effort, popped through the post but a little delving allowed that more discerning folk had welcomed him to the UK a decade or so ago. Chief among those folk were Simon George Moore and John O’Sullivan of UK band The Snakes (see here) and this pair appear on Magnificent Bastard which was recorded in rural Wiltshire, a world away from Dallas.
The album opens with a killer slice of punk infused swagger on the title track. That’s punk as purveyed by NY types such as Mink Deville and Jim Carroll as Hale sneers arrogantly, the guitars switch and flash while a Farfisa organ parps away. An excellent start but somewhat misleading as there’s only one other song here that rocks, the burnished chrome glide of Backburner, this time with Blue Oyster Cult coursing through its rifftastic veins. While it’s a bit of a head banger it does feature some bonkers Theremin throughout although the horn section that muscles its way in towards the end is a bit top heavy.
Perhaps exhausted by this effort Hale reins it in for the rest of the album proving himself to be a dab hand at wistful pop infused melodies, the recollection of school proms on Homecoming Mum and the rippling Simple Song fine examples but his best effort is on Can I Lay Down Next To You. Here there’s a soulful touch (reinforced by the organ and percussion recalling Otis’ try A Little Tenderness) allied to some sweet pedal steel on a song that recalls Wilco at times. There’s another comparison to be made when the gospel country strains of Just How She Died start up taking us into the land of Gram Parsons. Almost a parody (an affectionate one) of country duets with Madison King the female foil, it’s stuffed with black humour – “It’s all a bit hazy now but I remember a few things, about how she kicked my dog and flushed my wedding ring” and “I can’t remember how she died or if she’s just dead to me.” They capture perfectly Parson’s wide eyed cosmic cowboy persona, Hale’s delivery mimicking Parson’s mixture of yearning and insouciance.
There’s more dark humour (although no laughs) on the brooding Mexican tale of Sonrisas y Sunshine wherein a young punk hopes to be the star of the next narco-corrida hit by killing his girlfriend. With spooky Theremin adding a fifties sci-fi touch to the coiled menace of twanged guitar and lone Tijuana trumpet it’s a killer song. The centrepiece of the album however is deadly serious. Save Me (The Ballad of Odell Barnes Jr.) is informed by the story of a classmate and friend of Hale’s who was convicted of a murder and executed. Opening with a brief encapsulation of the crime from Barnes’ viewpoint delivered over a sole piano it then swells into an epic ballad with slide guitar recalling Lynyrd Skynyrd as Hale imagines the condemned man’s plea to be saved. While it’s not a song that can be considered a condemnation of the death penalty it does ask one to consider the condemned. As Hale says, “I don’t know if he did the murder or not but I want people to know what it is and to know the story.” Whatever his intentions it does pack an emotional punch.
Hale closes the album with a cover of Bill Withers’ Hope She’ll be Happier, another powerful punch that features Hale and a corrosive guitar that sears, his voice calling into a wilderness, an eternity of loneliness.
So, a magpie of sorts, an album that picks up shiny forebears but overall it’s quietly magnificent. Hale, the titular Magnificent Bastard, keen eyed and whip smart, tender and tough. The picture on the back of the album is a fine joke and reminded us of Geoff Dyer’s story White Sands in his latest book of the same name.