Love and Fear
eautiful” Bobby Eaton understood it best: Any great man needs to bring an equally high-quality teammate with him. They can help share the workload, cover up any weaknesses, and if the light hits them just right, they sparkle in their own right. Tom Russell obviously learned from pioneers. Last time he turned up on Stylus was with 2005's Hotwalker, a slice of Tex-Mex bar-room philosophy, a stumble through the ghost town that is Charles Bukowski's America, replete with guest appearances from Kerouac, stolen mail trains, and Russell's right-hand man and co-worker for the album, the since-deceased former circus midget and Hollywood stuntman “Little” Jack Horton. Similarly, throughout his career, Russell has made tracks with people like Johnny Cash, Nanci Griffith, and Dave Alvin of the Blasters. So yeah, Tommy Boy sure can pick 'em.
And now? It's 2006, it's Love and Fear, and it's the turn of country chanteuse and former Bryan Adams co-writer Gretchen Peters to share the mic with Thomas. So out go his usual steez of “guy chewing a toothpick whilst checking his reflection in the bar optics” grunting folk-rock, and instead there's a more human, less grubby face staring at us from out of the gutter. This doesn't mean for a second he's gone soft though. In fact, to prove he's still a real man, the album opens with “The Pugilist at 59,” a brain-damaged and cauliflower-eared tribute to aged tomato cans everywhere, guys whose only literature amounts to “phone bills, gas bills, electricity / And the mortgage and the junk mail / One old Father's Day card.” It also delivers probably the finest namecheck you'll find in a song this year. (The ghost of Archie Moorer is invoked, urging our fallen hero to get the fuck up. Russell himself doesn't need prompting at all.)
You've been in love, right? Didn't the whole experience just remind you of the corpse of a dead immigrant? Tom's noticed this as well. “Stealing Electricity,” as well as being solid-gold 10/10 A+ amazing, is based entirely around the metaphorical comparison between affairs of the heart to the farm-buying that results when your local neighbourhood ese attempts to thieve electricity from overhead power lines. “Ten thousand volts, now he's gone / Hanging high on a cross above Babylon,” impassions Russell, before Peters turns up to join him in a part-electrocution, part-Morse Code interpretation chorus. “You don't love yourself, woman / What the hell you doing with me?” he continues, the steely determination of a man who's decided to jump out of the relationship before he can get pushed, all country-blues bluster and a voice that sounds like he doesn't know whether to punch the wall or the girl, but rest assured his knuckles are going to sting in the morning. And then there's the accordion to deal with as well! As a song, it's near perfect.
And as a musician, Russell is near perfect. The fact that he doesn't go to sleep on a bed made entirely out of his gold discs is a testament to the foolishness of humanity. He can do post-Folsom, pre-alt.rock karaoke Johnny Cash croakiness nearly as well as JC could. He can hack it when it comes to Class of ‘89 country, as well; “Ash Wednesday” may exist mainly to show Peters off, but it's as close to slick as he could ever manage. “Old Heart” is Tom Waits holding it down on the piano at a cocktail lounge, whilst “Four Chambered Heart” (based around how crocodiles, like relationships, have four heart chambers (or something)) pairs a drive-time riff to unsettling sheet metal percussion, while Russell plays the street preacher: “They paid out millions of dollars to defend paedophile priest / Meanwhile people are living in the gutter holding signs: ‘Have you hugged your kid today?’”
Tom Russell is a musician who means it. This is scarred music, but there's something kinda beautiful about most cicatrices. They're the mark of a job well done, of someone who's putting himself on the line for your entertainment. Bobby Eaton would understand.
Reviewed by: Dom Passantino
Reviewed on: 2006-05-15