Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Tom Russell -- Blood and Candle Smoke

Blood and Candle Smoke
Shout! Factory

OK, I know I’ve said it before –- like in the essay I wrote last year for The Tom Russell Anthology: Veteran’s Day booklet -- but it bears repeating: I think Tom Russell is the finest singer-songwriter of my generation; the generation 10 to 15 years younger than Bob Dylan, that walked in his footsteps through the streets of Greenwich Village, that went back and listened to the same music from old weird America that he listened to, and that went to the University of Staying-up-all-night-on-Dave-Van-Ronk’s-couch. I’ve thought that about Tom Russell for the better part of 25 years and I’m as convinced of that now, as I keep listening to Blood and Candle Smoke, a state-of-the-art album, as I’ve ever been.

From the dawn of his career, Tom has always delivered a set of superbly-crafted songs on each of his albums. On many of them, he’s also delivered carefully constructed arrangements that color the songs beautifully. In terms of the songwriting craftsmanship, these 12 songs stand with Tom’s best while the arrangements –- featuring backing from members of Calexico and several others, including the sublime harmonies of Gretchen Peters -– and production values take his studio work to their highest heights yet.

In 1969, the Vietnam War raged on, Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon, and half a million people showed up for a three-day music festival in the Catskills. While all that was going on, the young Tom Russell, armed with his newly-minted degree in criminology, went on a teaching assignment in Nigeria. That sets the scene for the Calexico rhythms and mariachi trumpet that pulls us into this album and never lets go as we hear Tom remember those days in a hard place “East of Woodstock, West of Vietnam.

Other killer songs tell us about the Santa Ana winds, those hot, dry winds that set the golden mansions of paradise on fire every year, or about what it’s like to stare down the barrel of a gun in desperate places ranging from African warzones to depressing lumber camp bars in Canada.

The song “Nina Simone” references the great blues-jazz-folk singer but it’s not about Nina Simone per se. It’s about finding what you need in a voice that understands. Maybe for Tom in a bar in San Cristóbal, it was the voice of Nina Simone on the juke box. I know I’ve heard Nina Simone cut through to my soul when she sings about being “lost in the rain in Juarez” in a way I think Dylan would appreciate. Sometimes my “Nina Simones” have been Rosalie Sorrels or Billie Holiday or a dozen other singers who understand.

And “The Most Dangerous Woman in America” isn’t just about Mother Jones, the great labor organizer. It’s also about the sons or grandsons or great-grandsons of the miners she organized a century ago who still live marginal lives that can lead them into violence.

“Guadalupe” is one of those very rare songs that that reveals new layers of understanding with every hearing. I’m not necessarily talking about new layers of understanding of what Tom may have been getting at about himself when he wrote it. I’m talking about we, the listeners, hearing and understanding our own truths and about our own quests through the filter of Tom’s words. There are some Leonard Cohen songs that work like that.

In my essay for The Tom Russell Anthology: Veteran’s Day booklet I talked about some of the songs Tom’s written over the years about the ending of love relationships and predicted at the end that, with Tom having found a new bride, we’d hear a different kind of love song from him. The beautiful “Finding You,” written for Nadine, fulfills that prediction.

Sonically, it’s easy just to get caught up in the southwestern creativity of these arrangements. Every note played by every musician adds something to the magic of Blood and Candle Smoke. But still, for me, a Tom Russell album comes back to the songs – and like I can’t stop saying, I think he’s the finest singer-songwriter of my generation.

Blood and Candle Smoke will be released on September 15.

--Mike Regenstreif

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