Mount Hope Days
With tunes ranging from the political to the passionate, New England songwriter Don Hammontree's recently released Mount Hope Days offers a powerful, guitar-driven take on an age filled with uncertainty, fear and cynicism - melodic commentary that's mixed with a healthy sense of humor, as songs like "Foot and Mouth Disease Band" and "Love the Hell Out of Me" demonstrate. Opening with the moody yet melodic "Nixon's Children," Hammontree - a resident of Fall River, Mass. - is ready for confrontation from the get-go in this Gen X vs. Baby Boomers clash. "Banks of the Tigris," despite it's bright, sing-songy chorus, is a stinging, satirical look at the war in Iraq, while the apocalyptic "Reap and Sow" addresses tit-for-tat Middle Eastern terrorism. Yet, not all is political blood and guts on Mount Hope Days. Affairs of the heart are addressed here, as well, in the lovely "Hothead," co-written and sung by Manchester, England native Alanie Dutton, the stark "Failing," and the biting "All the Great Adult Film Stars." Then there's a few laughs thrown in - the hormone-driven hillbilly stomp of "Love the Hell Out of Me," the familiar premise of "Scratch Ticket" (getting stuck in line at a convenience store behind eight or so people wanting to buy - what else? - scratch tickets) and the epic "Foot and Mouth Disease Band," the tale of a fictional Boston band that finds grudging success at home, but through persistence and dedication, ends up on the Howard Stern show and has top 10 hits in Pakistan. Mount Hope Days also features an eclectic range of musicscapes. An interesting hybrid of influences is on display - U2, Ritchie Blackmore, Aimee Mann, Shawn Colvin, the Blue Nile, John Mellencamp, Chris Isaak, Liz Story, Pearl Jam, even Peter Cetera. "I never tried to be a musical snob when I was a teen-ager," said Hammontree. "I listened to records by U2, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Robyn Hitchcock, Steely Dan, etc., but I also was just as into Rainbow, Deep Purple, Chicago, Journey, Anita Baker, Toto ... stuff a lot of people don't readily come out and admit they like." Raised in blue-collar Peoria, Ill., Hammontree - who attended the same elementary and high schools Dan Fogelberg had graduated from nearly two decades earlier - started playing keyboards at 13 and guitar at 14. Eventually ending up in Chicago, Hammontree played and wrote songs in a number of bands - The Stalins, Sharp Round Edges, The Bonnie Situation and Flatiron - before co-founding Six Feet Over in 1997 with singer Kim Koppel and drummer Mike Helenthal. "We had a lot of fun with Six Feet Over," said Hammontree. "We played nearly every part of Chicago imaginable - North Side, South Side, Southwest Side, Northwest Side, the 'burbs ... Unfortunately, we fell into the same rut a lot of bands do ... we became overly concerned with achieving some sort of status or success, and so the music became secondary. Plus, we couldn't find a steady bass player to save our lives." The band did, however, manage to record two releases on their own label, Portuguese Slide Records - 1997's Another Day Like Today and 1999's This - which received airplay on a number of college and independent radio stations not only in the U.S. and Canada, but in the U.K, Ireland, France, Germany, Namibia, Sri Lanka, Senegal, Nicaragua, Romania and Bosnia, among others. In addition, a song off This called "Juhi Chawla," about a famous Bollywood actress of the same name, got the group several high-profile press write-ups in India, South Africa and England. Several remixes of Six Feet Over-era songs appear on Mouth Hope Days, including a peppy live take of "Driving to Oahu" that was recorded live during an in-studio performance at a Chicago college radio station. When internal squabbling eventually killed Six Feet Over, Hammontree relocated to New England, where he had briefly lived for a year or so after graduating from college. Six Feet Over continued on as an acoustic duo when Hammontree hooked up with singer Alyssa Marturano in Cambridge, Mass. In 2000. However, the duo's work schedules never meshed well, and Hammontree eventually decided to step out on his own. "I was very nervous about stepping out and singing solo," said Hammontree. "In Six Feet Over, I sang on a few songs, but I was never THE singer. But my friends said, 'hey, try it,' and actually, people like Robert Holmes were very encouraging." Holmes, who played guitar for Boston greats Til Tuesday of "Voices Carry" fame, was one of Hammontree's early guitar idols. Hammontree's continued interest in Til Tuesday's music eventually led him to strike up an unexpected online conversation with Holmes, and the two eventually met during one of Holmes' gigs in Amherst, Mass. "Robert mentioned he did studio work at his place up in Vermont, and after a few more conversations, I decided to work on a few tracks up there, with him as kind of a co-producer," said Hammontree. "When we were working on the material, it was businesslike, like doing it with anyone else. But when I thought about it later, I went, 'my God, I'm working with my heroes here - who gets this kind of opportunity?' If I knew when I was 16 that I'd be working with Robert Holmes 15 years down the road - wow." What started out as a two or three-song project kept growing as Hammontree churned out new tunes and remixed old Six Feet Over material with new lead vocals. He also started recording new tracks closer to home with Fall River producer Johnny Barsana. The end result is Mount Hope Days. "To be honest, I really like the way this CD came out," said Hammontree. "I worked hard on the songs, and Johnny and Robert really had a lot of great ideas that helped enhance them. There's a lot of variety - 'Hothead' is a very giddy, cheerful song, whereas 'Reap and Sow' is very raw, vicious and apocalyptic. Mount Hope Days, I think, manages to keep the listener on his or her toes - you're not sure what's coming next."