You are hereAlbum Review: Tom Russell - Mesabi (Proper)
Album Review: Tom Russell - Mesabi (Proper)
No one draws their characters quite as well as Tom Russell. A quick wander through the sprawling back roads of HOTWALKER is testament to that. Just as the dust settles in the blood and candle smoke of Russell's last release, which had me wondering momentarily if I'd actually stumbled upon a career best at the time, out comes another thirteen songs, plus a couple of bonus tracks, that once again offer a cinematic view of the American landscape with equal brilliance to its predecessors.
MESABI's characters are mostly real, often forgotten (almost), but legendary nevertheless, from the young man from Duluth, whom Russell cites as the inspiration behind him becoming a songwriter in the first place, to the troubled Hollywood actor Stirling Hayden; from the child actors Bobby Driscoll and Liz Taylor to Cliff Edwards, the voice of Jiminy Cricket, also known as Ukulele Ike. The pool of flawed characters is just as wide and varied as the endless vaults of celluloid reel cans where most of them now reside, forever.
There's something almost touching about the way Russell brings these characters to life, from the desperately sad tribute to the tough guy actor, tortured by ratting on colleagues during the 1950s McCarthy witch hunts, in Sterling Hayden to Bobby Driscoll, the legendary voice of Peter Pan and Treasure Island star, who became just as washed up as Long John Silver's missing leg in Farewell Never Never Land. There's also the jaunty eulogy to a 'funny little frog-faced man' in The Lonesome Death of Ukulele Ike, a touching tale remembering the man who sang When You Wish Upon a Star, incorporating the grand idea that no one actually dies if they play the ukulele. Can you imagine a world like that?
Whilst When the Legends Die reminisces on thoroughbreds and rodeo movies, other legends are paid tribute to in Furious Love, which is presented as a short but sweet vignette remembering Liz Taylor and A Land Called ‘Way Out There’, which references the fateful day upon which Donald Turnupseed gained a bruised forehead, whilst James Dean entered the Kingdom of Hollywood Heaven and became forever young.
Once again Russell provides a mariachi feel throughout, courtesy of Jacob Valenzuela's trumpet and Joel Guzman's accordion, together with other notable appearances by Van Dyke Parks, Calexico and Gretchen Peters' unmistakable voice on Goodnight Juarez. Lucinda Williams also joins Russell with her familiar tortured and cracked vocal for a fine duet on Dylan's A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall, one of the two bonus tracks on the album, together with the title song to the Monte Hellman film Road to Nowhere.
Just before the two bonus tracks that close the album, Russell finds himself alone in the studio for a sublime solo performance of the album's true closer, the optimistic Love Abides, which once again reveals the brilliance of Tom Russell's inimitable song writing.