Mesabi by Tom Russell (CD, download)
Review Tom Russell's Mesabi? Oh well, I suppose so.
I don't like giving heroes bad reviews, but I fear this album is one of his dodgier ones. It's streaminghere, so give it a listen and make up your own mind.
The title track is a good opener: setting Bob Dylan's childhood against Tom's and their shared hope of escape through music ('don't let me do the work my father did'), driven by Calexico's pumping brass and a strutting beat, and featuring the fine description of the Mesabi iron range as 'the Bethlehem of the troubadour kid'... But too much of what follows strikes me as either wet or clumsy or both.
Tom's always had a sentimental streak (what country writer doesn't?) but the catch is seldom far from his throat here, along with lines like
Christmas Day can break a man in two
When he's drunk, in the kitchen all alone
And the children don't call...
Come on, lad: get a grip.
The other problem is that he's got a lot of true stories he wants to tell: about child stars, self-loathing actors, the voice of Jiminy Cricket - but interesting stories don't necessarily make great songs. And when prosaic lines like
When Walt Disney terminated Bobby Driscoll's contract
seem to be required a writer's alarm bells should be ringing.
It's something of a relief when Tom goes back to the more familiar territory of Juarez and the borderline - 'Jai Alai', 'Goodnight, Juarez', 'And God Created Border Towns' (and had he not, I'm sure Tom would have done it for him; he must be on commission from the Mexican Tourist Board with all the namechecks...)
It's nice to hear Lucinda Williams duetting on 'A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall', but they take it too slow - it's not one to drag out. Then we're back onto a more even keel with the closer, 'Road To Nowhere', with nice brass, shimmering electric guitar and a bouncing beat - if you ignore some rather hackneyed lyrics.
So, disappointing, all in all. Particularly following his last release, Blood And Candle Smoke,which was, for me, his strongest and most consistent record since the classic Borderland back in 2001. Tom's one of the great songwriters. If you're not yet persuaded of that, those albums are the place to start. And to encourage you on your way, try this..