Tom Hamilton’s American Babies
An Epic Battle Between Light and Dark – Album Review
By Randy Harris
Tom Hamilton’s American Babies is a group that, despite its extremely talented lineups and incredible musical output, has remained somewhat under the radar. For those who know, however, there is simply nothing like it. With an ever-evolving cast of musicians, save for the constant presence of Hamilton himself, the music comes in many different forms, styles and genres, and yet, somehow it always seems to fit. While Hamilton himself has been heavily influenced by his recent involvement in various Grateful Dead projects, he set out to record this new album with the specific intent to not “make a record that sounded like I’d been playing the Grateful Dead’s music for the last two years.” The album, An Epic Battle Between Light and Dark, definitely succeeds in this goal and continues Hamilton’s legacy of felicitous evolution. Recorded primarily at Philadelphia’s Lorelei Studios, An Epic Battle Between Light and Dark was released on March 18, 2016.
The album opens up with a whirlwind of a song, “Synth Driver.” The driving groove contrasts against soft vocals and sparse guitar tones. The drive, however, acts as a precursor to the inevitable climax of this rollercoaster ride of a tune. “Oh Darling, My Darling” takes a darker turn, as the heavy piano chords strike waves of emotion throughout our veins. The epic climax comes out of nowhere, emitting an eerie, Draconian sense of fear and the unknown. “Alone in the House” is a beautiful, primarily vocal and guitar tune, as Hamilton croons along with the guitar line. In “What Does It Mean To Be,” the heavy bass groove drives the verse, while the band rocks out a chorus that asks the tough questions of life that all of us ponder at some point. It also poses an interesting semi-answer, but in the form of a question. “Am I too young? Am I too old?” These questions seem to act as the answer, basically saying that we always feel like we are either too young or too old to know “what it means to be.”
“Fever Dreams” is a song of aspiration. The incorporation of a horn section breathes a new life into the album to kick off the second half. The hypnotic intro of “Not in a Million Years” stirs the brainwaves in preparation for a hell-raising build, led primarily by drums, that tantalizingly teases a bigger build, before tapering off, leaving the listener in a state of anticipation for the final stretch of the album. “Bring It in Close” takes a breather with dreamy guitar and synths that send listeners floating away on a cloud of elation. The ringing organ reminds us that everything is alright, as Hamilton confirms this feeling with beautifully written lyrics. The deep bass in the chorus and the harmonic, choral background vocals add to the uplifting emotions that pour out during this comforting song. The title track closes out the album, aptly summing up the album as a whole, as well as this song individually, both musically and lyrically. While in some cases it feels more like a journey than a battle, the transitions from light to dark and dark to light are unmistakable, guiding listeners in and out of each.
What an incredible listening experience! There are so many great things about this album, but the one that stands out the most is that no two songs are the same. Hamilton himself explains his need for diversity and variety in his bio, stating, “I wanted that freedom to be there to change sounds and to evolve, so you don’t get stuck where people are like, ‘Well, I thought you were this kind of band, so you should play this kind of music or wear these kinds of clothes.’ The word ‘should’ is something I’ve been trying to avoid for the last seven-to-ten years,” he adds. “That’s a cancer to creativity. I don’t want to ‘should’ do anything.” He has definitely succeeded in cultivating that type of culture and image. The next thing that stands out to me is the band’s ability to allow the music to breathe. While there are certainly complexities in the music and it is by no means an “easy” album to write or play, the relative simplicity of the songs allows them to focus more on phrasing and putting the right notes in the right places, as opposed to trying to play as fast as possible or as many notes as possible. Every single note is important to the song and album as a whole, each one providing substance and life. Overall, this album is beautifully written and recorded, and I feel refreshed and emotional having heard it in its entirety.