After completing three albums as the leader of Austin’s crafty and intelligent Wild Seeds, North Carolina-born singer/guitarist/keyboardist (and former music journalist) Michael Hall moved into a similarly wise and winning solo career, also distinguished by exemplary, incisive songwriting and easygoing musical charisma. Co-produced by Walter Salas-Humara of the Silos (with whom Hall and Alejandro Escovedo later formed the Setters), Quarter to Three is a restrained, resigned and largely acoustic showcase for Hall’s good songs (especially “Congratulations” and “Roll Around Heaven This Way”) and conversationally plain singing. The deck-clearing Love Is Murder, which both rocks and twangs harder than the debut, was assembled from various ’91/’92 sessions in Texas and Europe (one with former Wild Seeds bandmate Kris McKay singing lead). Unstable enough to contain such eccentric outcroppings as the Daniel Johnston-styled “Let’s Take Some Drugs and Drive Around” (“I’d rather get beat up than sit around all night”), the Dylanesque goofiness of “Put Down That Pig,” the jocular JFK idea of “What Did They Do With the President’s Brain?” and an unrecognizable acoustic cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Trampled Underfoot,” the album generally heads down the crooked white line of romantic difficulties, guided by the seven-minute title track, a compelling high-wire act of fatal balladry.
The alternately stirring and somber Adequate Desire confronts birth, life, love and death in handsomely rounded songs that don’t pretend to possess answers to anything. “Every Little Thing” greets a baby with the news that it’s “a great big world, that’s your curse”; between surging lead guitar jousts, “I Just Do” admits the inexplicability of attraction. Even when he’s succumbing to a bittersweet memory, as in “Under the Rainbow With You,” Hall tempers the wistfulness with a chorus so gorgeous and uplifting that it can’t possibly be regret he’s feeling. But regret isn’t all he’s feeling in “Hello, Mr. Death,” a solemn if surprisingly ineffectual tribute to Manny Verzosa, the singer/guitarist who died in a 1993 road accident while on tour with the Silos. Hall holds his sardonic wit before him like a shield but leaves his cutting edge in its scabbard: “Hello, Mr. Death/That was a dirty trick, I’m impressed…It’s a good day to die, I guess.”
There are only three songs on Frank Slade’s 29th Dream and two of them come from Adequate Desire, but the title track is an album-length piece (the lyrics of which appear in full on the tray card of Adequate Desire) that undertakes a great mission — and fails completely. Throughout this slowly building 38-minute processional of piano, lap steel, cello, drums and distorted tape hysteria, Hall maddeningly invokes the phrase “Life is all right for the time being” as punctuation for every one of the song’s enigmatic couplets. Water torture would be a relief.
Fortunately, Day — recorded after Hall’s relocation to Chicago — is a complete return to form. A classy rock record that employs Mekons drummer Steve Goulding and frames Hall’s casual singing in handsome, inventive settings of guitars, trumpet and violin, Day contains typically thoughtful songs of normal lengths — and extreme emotions. “Ghosts” shrugs at the prospect of oblivion; “Sweet Train” indicts religion, saying, “The prince of peace is a man of war.” “Las Vegas” is a soldier’s story; “The Museum of Giant Puppets, PA” paints a dead end in which “the truth is like the teeth of a corpse” and “the red beast and the fat, naked dancer are rolling in blood, vomit and excrement.” The symbolism of Hall’s concerns can be too opaque for quick appraisal, but his imagery is invariably compelling in its raw intensity. Life, he seems to be saying, is not all right for the time being.