At some point in every man’s life, he looks in the mirror and is surprised by what he sees. His hair is a bit more gray, his skin more wrinkled, his eyes are a bit more pale than he remembered them being the day before. He begins to wonder: What have I accomplished with my life? Where am I headed? What is truly important to me?
For Tom Hamilton, that day is today and the questions are being asked on Knives & Teeth, the powerful new album he’s recorded with his band, American Babies. Over the course of 10 songs that range from uplifting to heartbreaking, Hamilton considers the secrets of childhood, the impending doubts of adulthood and the weight of strained friendships, all set to a soundtrack with the brashness of The Replacements, the sonic intensity of David Bowie and the acoustic majesty of Led Zeppelin.
Hamilton’s ability to connect music with deep, soulful emotion dates back to when he a 10-year old kid, growing up in West Philly. “Stevie Ray Vaughan had just died and all his friends were paying tribute to him on Austin City Limits,” he recalls. “I’m sitting there, watching the concert on TV, and up steps Buddy Guy. He played every note as if it hurt for him to dig it out of his soul. It was like every woman in the room wanted him and every man in the room wanted to be him. I thought: ‘Sign me up.’”
Hamilton’s family were all musical so it wasn’t a big stretch for him to start walking the path of his idols. At 18, he and friends Tom McKee, Clay Parnell and Rick Lowenberg started the highly successful electro-rock band, Brothers Past, an endeavor that infused the song structures of The Grateful Dead into the experimental music of Aphex Twin and Squarepusher (a sort of “Pink Floyd with laptops,” as Hamilton calls it).
When the strictures of band life became creatively stifling, Hamilton decided in 2007 to form American Babies. A loosely-organized operation wherein Hamilton is the sole constant member, American Babies has released three sets over the course of six years: their self-titled debut, which won them numerous festival appearances as well supporting gigs with Sheryl Crow, Derek Trucks and The National; a 2010 EP called Weight of the World; and, in 2011, their second long player, Flawed Logic.
A raucous, rootsy affair that won critical praise from the likes of Atlas and Anchor and State of Mind Music, Flawed Logic was “a collection of short stories of different individuals and couples trying to navigate through modern day life,” Hamilton said at the time of its release. "It’s about pressure,” he added. “We’re feeling the pinch and trying to figure out how to cope. At least that’s the way I’m calling it."
When asked to describe his latest effort, Knives & Teeth, Hamilton’s answer is short and compact but, like his lyrics, is loaded with deeper meaning: “It’s a 40-minute existential breakdown.”
“When you're in your 20s you worry or focus on things that don't seem to maintain their importance as you get older,” he says by way of explanation. “Chicks, partying, finding a place. Shit, all of my albums back then were about girls, in one way or another. Then you grow up and you realize none of it actually matters, so you dig deeper. I spent a lot of time with some activist friends and the Occupy movement. That pushed some buttons but, I keep digging. Then I had a couple of close friends pass away within a few months of each other and that made me really dig in. I started to think about my own mortality. Reconsidering what was really important to me.”
For Hamilton, the subjects considered on Knives & Teeth -- love and loss, success and misfortune -- are the natural extension of same existential questions he confronted on the previous album. There’s “When I Build My Fortune,” a soaring acoustic portrait of a man considering what his life is like today through the eyes of himself as a 12-year old. Written around the same time, “Cold Blooded” is also about looking inward and deciding whether to rise up or step down.
Throughout the course of the album, from the Lou Reed-inspired “This Thing Ain’t Goin’ Nowheres” to the inspired punk energy of “Bullseye Blues” to the head-shaking acceptance of “Goddamn,” Knives & Teeth says Hamilton, "speaks of the game of hide-and-seek that we all play with death."
“It’s like: when you’re born, the Grim Reaper is far away and all he has to throw at you is a pebble,” muses Hamilton. “As you get older, the pebble becomes a rock; then it becomes a gun; then it becomes a gun with a scope. Eventually, he’ll get close enough and his weapon will be sharp enough to hit you. Knives & Teeth is about what happens between now and that day.”