Marcellus Hall has a Sunday residency at 8:30 PM at Pete’s Candy Store this July; there are two shows remaining, on the 22nd and 29th. If clever, jangly, Americana-tinged rock with killer hooks and sharp, biting lyrics is your thing, you should see at least one of these. Hall is one of those rare artists who gets better with time: he was good back when he was in Railroad Jerk back in the 90s and then after that with White Hassle, who beat the White Stripes to the bassless garage rock thing by a few years but never got credit for it. Last night his deadpan sardonic wit was in full effect as he and his excellent band – Troy Fannin switching between organ and lead guitar, Damon Smith on bass and Mike Shapiro on drums – ran through a set of new material, a couple of covers and songs from Hall’s excellent 2011 album The First Line.
Since the White Hassle days – the band has been “on hiatus” since about 2005 – Hall’s songs have taken on a richer, more lingering sound, maybe just because he lets the chords ring out, he’s traded in his old Danelectro for an acoustic-electric and has bass in the band now. Speaking of bass, Smith was brilliant all night long, driving the first song with a neatly slurry lick way up the fretboard and staying way up there when the bittersweet chorus kicked in. The second song worked a straight-up garage-funk vein, Fannin and Hall joining forces on the catchy turnaround. A little later they did one that juxtaposed a distantly vintage Britpop verse against a biting chromatically-fueled chorus, with a casually smart, terse soul/blues guitar solo from Fannin. Another built up to a big crescendo with swirly organ and then a walk on the bass way down the scale, all the way to the bottom as the chorus kicked in. Soulmate, a cut that just screams out “college radio hit,” had a typically sarcastic lyric and a Motown-flavored break with just bass and drums.
But the best songs were the funniest ones. Hall has made a career of chronicling the misadventures of people who have their bullshit detectors set to stun: they have zero tolerance for fakeness and indecision, and their romantic adventures suffer badly as a result. The funniest one of these was a wry 6/8 anthem about a girl who’s a total killjoy: “I don’t want a boyfriend, she said with a sigh. I said no problem…I said what about dinner, you don’t have to pay,” Hall deadpanned. But when she put out her own suggestion for a pre-hookup activity, that had to be a dealbreaker – the joke is too good to spoil. The most offhandedly vicious song swayed hypnotically over a simple two-chord vamp as Hall set his sights on Faceboogers and textards:
I’m friends with people who I don’t know
Where does one turn after the afterglow
Please stick around, don’t go away
After this song there’ll be a Q&A
My head is messed up and my mind is undone
You are no one til you’re texting someone
The covers included one that Hall said he would sing in French which turned out to be a pretty basic version of You Never Can Tell which if you didn’t know it, you never would be able to tell that Chuck Berry wrote it. . They closed the set with an audience request, a completely serious, zero-sarcasm, harmony-driven cover of the old country gospel number Satisfied Mind, done as a defiant working person’s anthem. Hall also wasn’t joking that he’d brought a credit card reader for anybody who felt like using plastic to buy a cd, vinyl record or piece of art (Hall is also a highly sought-after illustrator): this was Williamsburg, after all, 2012.