American Babies just released their third album, Knives and Teeth. It is a symphonic non-linear, rock album touching on painful and complex themes and shying-away from typical song structures and concepts.
Knives and Teeth is filled with big harmonies, acoustic finger picking, massive electric guitars, and drums that move between EMD and bluegrass train beats flawlessly. And that is all on the first track, â€œWhen I Build My Fortune.â€Â The track, and thus the album, opens with silence, from which emerges a forlorn acoustic guitar lick (reminiscent of Pete Townsend) over an ambient backdrop. By the time the dissonant runs begin, and the first lyric emerges from the soundscape, â€œI dove down, down to the bottom / My earliest childhood dream,â€ the listener should be able to sense that this will not be a run-of-the-mill pop album, but something different, darker, but with purpose.
Knives and Teeth deals with loss, pain, frustration and more. Honest Tune had a chance to speak with Tom Hamilton, front man of American Babies (and Brothers Past before them) about the new album. Throughout the conversation, he spoke about love, love lost, war, family, the Occupy Movement and much more.
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â€œThis Ainâ€™t Going Nowhereâ€ is a fascinating song about being in the middle. â€œMy little sister wants to know / Why does everything gotta move so slow / But on the other hand, Daddy says shit moves real quick / When you get old.â€ When asked with which one of these perspectives he related, Hamilton, who is 34, replied:
Aww man, hereâ€™s my problem. Iâ€™m in that fucking middle situation now, man. I have a little sister, sheâ€™s 16 and goddamn sheâ€™s 16.Â Itâ€™s insane.Â Itâ€™s been heaven to me. And then my dad, heâ€™s almost 60 and you know, heâ€™s raising this fucking 16 year old girl, and itâ€™s a piss to watch.Â [Iâ€™m] in between the two of them. You know, age wise, Iâ€™m pretty much right in the middle. I mean me and my brother, weâ€™re significantly older than my sister and itâ€™s just a lit bit weird. I donâ€™t know man. In your 30s, youâ€™re in the middle of the circle. Youâ€™re no longer really at the kids table, but youâ€™re not really at the adult table. I have cousins who sit at the adult table with their three kids and their fucking husband, and then thereâ€™s me who showing up to the family dinners looking like I fucking just crawled out of a gutter cause I just got off tour for six weeks. I donâ€™t have any kids, you know, itâ€™s this weird Peter Pan situation.
â€œGoddamnâ€ opens with the line, â€œI said Goddamn / Iâ€™m hurting like I donâ€™t know what.â€ There is power in a feeling so strong it is not able to hold a metaphor. There is no room here for a sharp tongue or a clever wit. Things are so bad, this is just what it is; no pomp, no circumstance. With lines like â€œI said easy now / Yeah, I love you like I donâ€™t know what / I feel it deep down in my gut / But that ainâ€™t enough,â€ the song sounds like it was intended to be an antidote to the common love song. When asked if that was his intention, Hamilton first spoke about heartbreak and the woman who inspired this song.Â The pain in his voice still sounded fresh, but he continued, â€œNo, itâ€™s not anti-loveâ€¦ Love is, itâ€™s all we got, man… Itâ€™s all in our brain, in some capacity and you know, I couldnâ€™t give up on it. Its music, you know man, that feeling, of like wanting to hug a basket of kittens.â€
About two-thirds of the way into the album, the melody and rhythms and emotions give way to a pulsating buzz. It sounds like a digital recreation of the ocean, or a distant highway on another planet. It begins on the tail end of “They Sing Old Time Religion” and continues for over a minute into “Running in Place.” This sudden lack of stimuli in the middle of an otherwise intense album, both aurally and lyrically is referred to as â€œthe big nothingness,â€ by Hamilton.Â He elaborates:
The ideal situation for [listening to] a record is always [with] headphones on, [or] if youâ€™re fortunate enough and if you have really great speakers you just turn it up to ten.Â I wanted there to be a cool down in the middle of the whole thing. And I feel like when youâ€™re listening with headphones or something, specifically like that, when thatâ€™s going on, itâ€™s not that loud, that noise thatâ€™s the happening. Which makes so you have to listen more and draws you inÂ and it changes your ears. Instead of your ears receiving sound, itâ€™s now making your ears seek out sound. You know, and youâ€™re digging in and youâ€™re trying to find it. Youâ€™re listening to it, youâ€™re like, whatâ€™s going on and youâ€™re like, why is this happening? And then you are listening even harder as you wonder, why the fuck is this going on, and it brings you in and to me, personally, it wraps you up like a little warm blanket and then that guitar starts and youâ€™re like, â€œoh shit, that was nice.â€
And it is nice. Knives and Teeth is emotional and, at times, jarring. It has a huge sound that changes radically within each track. There are crunchy electric guitar leads reminiscent of David Gilmore or Steve Kimock. There are delicate finger-picked lines that lullaby you into false senses of security. The finger picking that brings us back out of the big nothingness could easily pass for something off of a lost Elliott Smith album. At times Knives and Teeth is Americana; at times it is all Rock and Roll. There are tinges of blues, gospel and folk. The nothingness in the album gives the listener an opportunity to process and to prepare for what comes next, whatever that may be.
This lulling lead-in couldnâ€™t be more different than the opening of â€œFire Sale,â€, which comes in angry.Â The intro is one of the most-hard rocking segments on the ten-track album. Hamilton sings, â€œI donâ€™t know if I can forgive / Or where to begin with the way that you live / With the Catholics / Itâ€™s an impossible love.â€ The song is raw, honest and there is pain in every moment of every guitar lick and every vocal melody. It is not about religion per se, but the inability of people to come together around a cause bigger than themselves.Â Hamilton explains how the Occupy Movement was the impetus for much of the lyrical inspiration for â€œFire Sale.â€
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â I was pretty into the whole Occupy Philly thing.Â I was there for quite some time with the Occupy movement and man, what a fucking shit show that turned out to be. You know, it was awful. Seeing how people are, in that kind of way, this thing that started with such hope and good intentions and then just seeing what people turned it into. You wonder why nothing can happen.
You have all of these people with their own fucking agenda and their own bullshit and itâ€™s like hey man, Iâ€™m pretty sure, arenâ€™t we here for this financial equality thing, figuring out the banking system and stuff and all of a sudden youâ€™ve got some asshole talking about legalizing pot and some other asshole talking about the Illuminati…Itâ€™s like dude, I appreciate that everyone has their own issues they want to address here, but this is supposed to be about this. But to make it about this and to make a change instead of fucking splintering off, well that somehow works out. Everybodyâ€™s got their own fucking thing. Then youâ€™ve got the opposition coming down and even they canâ€™t agree. Weâ€™ll Iâ€™m pro-fucking life and Iâ€™m fucking this and Iâ€™m that, Iâ€™m like â€œdude, would everybody just shut the fuck up for four seconds and letâ€™s try and come to a general consensus here.â€ It was very discouraging man.Â Thatâ€™s just like that whole crazy right wing thing. You know man I get it.
My mom is a very Catholic person but sheâ€™s not fucking crazy. Sheâ€™s not fucking biting the heads of kittens. You know, you have these people, fucking psychopaths that are taking things to extremes. It bothers me, to say the least. So, the whole thing is just, while weâ€™re young, while weâ€™re free. And itâ€™s like hey man, listen, this is a good opportunityâ€¦You have that on your side and you have your opinions and all that shit. Be smart with it. Try to get together. Why donâ€™t we all get to-fucking-gether and talk about this shit and make it one voice thatâ€™s undeniable instead of a billion little voices that nobody gives a fuck about. You know?
The final track on the album is â€œTelephone.â€ It is a beautiful song about war, told from the perspective of those at home, waiting.Â Hamiltonâ€™s brother is a vet and the song was born from the absurd idea that the two of them were G-chatting on a regular basis, replete with LOLs, as his brother was in a war zone in a distant land. But itâ€™s also generally about being far from love and family — something that a 34 year old who has spent the majority of his adult life on the road can easily relate to.Â â€œThese days when you miss somebody that much, youâ€™re constantly looking at the fucking phone, Hamilton says, â€œAt least I am. I mean I look at my phone 100 times a day, hoping that my girlfriend is thinking of me. I mean, we all do that.â€
(A quick side note:Â Hamilton’s Mom sings harmony on that track and sheâ€™s great.)
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As an album, Knives and Teeth is steeped in darkness, recorded during an emotional time in the life of a very talented musician. The pain that inspired this album is present throughout. But despite the darkness, hope is also evident throughout. This isnâ€™t an album about being finished, itâ€™s an album about getting started; itâ€™s not about quitting, itâ€™s about learning to get back up.
Knives and Teeth is not an album to throw on to get the party started; rather, this is an album for a long, contemplative car ride by yourself. Or to listen to in the dark, when life hasnâ€™t been perfect and you need to stop and take account. In fairness, there are some raging guitar solos on here and enough funk drums to get people dancing. So if you are so inclined, throw it on at your next gathering. Just be prepared for the party to be sporadic, starting and stopping without notice or apology.
Follow Josh Klemons on TwitterÂ @jlemonsk