Marcellus Hall has been recording music for more than 20 years, but the New York-based singer songwriter is better known for his career as an illustrator, his art having appeared in such high profile outlets as The Alantic and The New Yorker. Yet Hall has a solid body of work to his name, most prominently with punk-blues act Railroad Jerk, who released four albums in the ’90s and even aired several videos on MTV’s “120 Minutes.” They never quite achieved the same level of name recognition as Matador labelmates Pavement or even Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, with whom they shared an affinity for blues-based indie jams, but Railroad Jerk had their share of standout songs that could go toe-to-toe with indie rock heavyweights, from the humorous slacker motivational anthem “Clean Shirt” to the Beck-style free association of “Bang the Drum.” And given the frequently witty, smart-assed lyrics Hall penned, it probably shouldn’t come as any surprise to listeners that he doubles as cartoonist.
Hall’s first solo album, The First Line, doesn’t quite display the same level of smart-aleck quips as those found in Railroad Jerk’s discography, but the singer still has a smirking croon that shows his wit hasn’t been dulled. There’s a classic folksong feel to the opening title track revealing a playful meta-songwriting as he sings, “If I could just get the first line/ the song would write itself/ and if I could just get the second line/ the rest would be downhill/ a magazine would ask me what the songs are about/ I’d say it’s a mystery, the songs just come out.” The 12 other songs on The First Line follow the rootsy, effortlessly witty example of the title track, recalling a less gravelly Eric Bachmann in any of his post-Archers of Loaf projects, or a slightly more bassy John Darnielle. In short, this is high quality indie folk that’s breezy, but never slight.
Highlights come in great numbers on The First Line, from the weeping cello of “Neon, Not the Night,” to the bluesy stomp of “It’s My Life,” the tender twang of “Don’t Go,” and the affecting conversation ballad “One Drop of Rain.” There’s nothing particularly fussy about The First Line, just 13 bright and breezy, and easy-to-like indie folk tunes that provide the greatest rewards for those who choose to heed the most attention to Hall’s words. It may have been a few years since Hall has graced audiences with new music, but The First Line is an excellent way to reintroduce himself.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.