Jen Hamel,
Fine Small Storm
(Candletime, 2001)

Jen Hamel, who has won the hearts of music-lovers everywhere with her powerful, emotional vocals, her clever songwriting and her infectious energy as the centerpoint of every Clandestine show, has stepped out on her own for an exceptional solo debut.

Fine Small Storm is a folk tour de force -- soulful, expressive melodies which spring quickly and easily to mind at odd moments; deft, tightly woven arrangements, surprisingly simple at times, subtly intricate at others; meaningful lyrics, often telling stories, less of action than of emotion; and, of course, that voice. Anyone who's ever heard Jen sing knows what I'm talking about. She sings low and throaty, potent, a sweet voice with an edge, like honey on a razor.

Here, Jen's voice is always center stage, never standing in the shadow of a well-played fiddle or bagpipe. But don't assume that means Jen is going it alone; she employs the talents of nine musical friends, including her Clandestine cohorts Emily Dugas (hand percussion, vocals), E.J. Jones (flute, vocals) and Gregory McQueen (fiddle). Also joining Jen are Turlach Boylan (flute), Andrew Dugas (doublebass), Rodrigo Gonzales (accordion), Randy Miller (Hammond organ, electric bass), Aric Nitzberg (acoustic, upright, bowed, Fender and fretless bass) and producer Gerry O'Beirne (6- and 12-string guitars, mandola, Hammond organ, slide, guitar, ukelele, mellotron, bell). For her own part, Jen sings and plays guitar and mandola.

All this is wrapped up in a tasty package of folk ballads which should please even the most discriminating of folk fans. Seven of the album's ten tracks are Hamel originals and she proves here that her songwriting skills continue to improve. Highlights including the affirming song "Lost and Found," her poignant "Cry," the upbeat "Everybody Tries" and the plaintive "Barbara."

I was surprised to hear Jen reprise "Ottawa," a track from Clandestine's first CD, The Ale is Dear. But this is no minor redo; this is a whole new song, with a lush new arrangement and a discreetly erotic tone which will have you jabbing a finger at the repeat button a time or two. And it takes a few repeats to fully appreciate the many rich layers: Jen's twice-dubbed vocals and steady guitar, Gregory's oh-so faint fiddle, E.J.'s delicate flute, the understated backdrop of Aric's acoustic bass and Emily's congas and, most importantly, Gerry's evocative 12-string and slides, setting nerves to tingling.

The album proceeds next to the reverential O'Beirne song "The Isle of Malachy," a beautiful tribute making unusual but effective use of a mellotron to counterpoint Jen's soft voice. The other covers -- Sonny Condell's "Down in the City" and Dave Cousins' "Sail Away to the Sea" -- are effectively used here, with distinctive Hamel touches settling them neatly in among her own compositions.

Fine Small Storm is a contemplative album. Don't put this one on and expect to get up and boogie 'til dawn. It's for a mellow time, a lazy afternoon with a book in the sun, perhaps, or a quiet evening when you can relax and let the music wash your day away.

I have no desire to see Jen ever part from Clandestine. But with solo work of this caliber, I certainly hope she continues to find time in the studio to pursue her own projects. She's too good to limit her talents.

[ by Tom Knapp ]