You may well come here wondering who Hamel actually is. Certainly in the UK he has yet to become well-known, possibly because we are very fond of pigeon-holing our stars and singers, and Hamel’s style and material really fights against this, switching from pop to jazz and back again often within the course of a three-minute track. I confess, that I only came across Hamel out of curiosity after seeing a CD in HMV and looking him up on Youtube when I got home.
If someone was presented with his music for the first time, they might describe it as “sunny”, “likeable”, “easy” or, to steal the title of one of Hamel’s own songs, “breezy”. But these words do someone of an injustice to Hamel’s work, for it would suggest that beneath the bright, smooth, laid-back vocals there was nothing else going on, and that clearly is not the case. It would certainly be true to say that this material is catchy and gives much pleasure on the first listen, but there is also a great deal to extract and enjoy with subsequent hearings.
“Lohengrin”, Hamel’s latest offering for the UK audience, opens with the wonderfully catchy “Touch The Stars”. A short, dark instrumental section reminds us that, despitethe jaunty nature of many of the tracks on this album, the underlying themes are deeper and darker than might be expected. The introduction of the song kicks in properly, though, with some wonderful piano work from Thierry Castel who provides us with a style which somehow includes elements of jazz, honky-tonk and the bar-room style of Mrs Mills all at the same time. As with other songs, Hamel’s vocals may be pop-driven, but it is the orchestration which reminds us of the singer’s jazz roots, and there are some fine solos during the instrumental break. This is a wonderfully arresting opening number and manages to drag the listener in to the world of the album with ease.
“Demise” follows next and, again, despite the sunny feel of the song that sounds like it was written in the late 1970s, there is something darker going on here lyrically. There is little jazz influence here though, although Hamel does manage a brief vocal scat at one point during the extended outtro. This closing section of the song reveals a harsher, edgier tone to the singer’s voice which is attractive and gets really utilised for the first time on this album.
“What’s Left” is the first ballad of the album and, again, is underpinned by some fine piano work from Castel, aided and abetted by Sven Happel on double bass. The stop-start nature of the song leads into a semi-unexpected ending which segues nicely into the driving rhythm of “Giu-Giu”. While certainly not my favourite song of the album, it is worth noting here how well produced this album is. The arrangements and orchestrations are superb and beautifully recorded and mixed. This is particularly true of a song like “Finally Getting Closer” where the vocals are perfectly crisp and clear despite the weighty backing of the second half of the song. Another facet of Hamel’s vocals shines through here, as the renditions of the chorus are sung semi-falsetto one time and then with a much beefier sound as he (almost unexpectedly) soars above the heavy orchestration.
Talking of orchestrations, “Skimming the Skies” is imaginatively backed by just a trombone ensemble. This is really a stroke of genius, and remarkable evocative, and, together with the lovely vocal, makes this short ballad a highlight of the album. “Kings and Queens” takes us back into 1970s pop again before we return to darker fare with “Rue Damremont” which is, once again, elevated by Thierry Castel’s piano. This is a wonderful song and once again the orchestration deserves high praise, but let’s not take anything away from Hamel’s sublime vocal. The title song, “Lohengrin”, is more of the same but with a soaring chorus. “Zhavaronki” once again utilises the singer’s higher register and he shines in a sincere, heart-felt vocal. Perhaps the song suffers from giving in to the temptation to use a heavier sound in its final couple of verses, but this is a minor complaint – it just seems that this tender number might just have benefitted from the less-is-more approach of the earlier “Skimming the Skies”.
There is a slightly bluesy feel to some of the harmonies of “Little Boy Lost”, with Hamel again giving a sublime, vulnerable vocal, with the final section finding his voice bathed in some lovely close vocal harmonies. The pop sounds of “Toronto” closes out the album proper on a lyrically more upbeat note, although a bonus track featuring just Hamel and piano is also included.
It’s easy to dismiss Hamel, not least because of his smooth, relaxed delivery and the light tones of his voice. But often his lyrics and songs have considerably more grit and depth than the delivery might suggest. In this sense he both benefits and suffers in the same way as someone such as Neil Sedaka did in the 1970s, who has a similarly lighter tone to his voice but, like Hamel, often used surprisingly dark, meaningful lyrics that deserve closer attention than they might get. What this means is that, while some might miss out on the nuances completely, those that do listen carefully are often rewarded.