Saturday, March 27, 2010

Great Song Grouping: Tom Russell

I've always appreciated the album form for the potential to bring the listener along on a particular emotional or spiritual ride from song-to-song. I think I used this as part of my rationale -- along with the superiority of analog sound -- for continuing to buy cassette tapes well into the CD era. (That decision, of course, has led me to buy a ridiculous number of albums for a second time, either on CD or digitally.)

While bouncing around my iPod today, I visited in on a favorite section of Tom Russell's Modern Art album. Now, this is a solid Tom Russell disc -- not as great, in my opinion, as Borderland, the album that preceded it, but pretty great. The opening track, "The Kid from Spavinaw," about Mickey Mantle, has been known to reduce at least one semi-regular Blackbirds reader to tears. "Muhammad Ali" is a solid civil rights reflection with an island rhythm. And the title track centers around a memorable growled couplet: "And there's two damn things that'll break your heart: / Modern love and modern art."

But the set of songs that really hits home with me comes at the end of the disc -- the last four.

The first of these is Dave Alvin's "Bus Station," which Russell sings with Nanci Griffith. I remember putting this one on repeat play when I was travelling across the country by Greyhound in 2003, just after the disc had come out. The craftsmanship is great: a man and a woman traveling by bus, bringing their old patterns and broken promises with them but unable to escape. Tom and Nanci split the verses nicely. They maybe overdo it a bit when emphasizing the words "screw loose" on the chorus, but it's the sort of overemphasis that might actually be helping to bring the song closer to perfect.

"Bus Station" is followed by a recitation of part of a Charles Bukowski poem -- "Crucifix in a Death Hand," which is a typically Bukowskian portrait of Los Angeles -- Mexican women at the market, an old prostitute "with a film over one eye" and bars with beer that already tastes like vomit -- and this is Russell's Los Angeles, as well, and so the words are spoken with heart. The recitation fades into one verse of Warren Zevon's "Carmelita" with the concluding picture of its narrator "all strung out on heroin on the outskirts of town." The pairing is well conceived and well executed.

Then we get a burst of energy while remaining firmly in Southern California. "Tijuana Bible" bursts onto the scene with a single guitar chord and Russell's announcement that "Lana Turner's daughter killed Johnny Stompanato." This is the Los Angeles of Russell's youth again -- the stars, the scandal, the sensationalism and a strain of pornographic comic books known as Tijuana bibles. ("When I got home and cracked the book, / It was full of sex cartoons. / Daisy Duck and Cary Grant / In a Tijuana bedroom.") This song again teeters on the edge with an enthusiastic chorus punctuating lines with repeated "Oohh-ohhh-ohhhh"s. But the drive and the strange narrative keep it right-side-up.

And then we get a gentle conclusion to the album and some more Nanci Griffith as she helps out on her own song "Gulf Coast Highway," which -- in this four-song set -- nicely bookends "Bus Station" as it focuses in on two long-time partners who are watching the blue bonnets grow in the garden and waiting to be swept away on a blackbird's wing. The song ends without fanfare, bringing the four-song set and the whole album to a close.

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