Tom Russell has been slugging it out on the unpaved singer/songwriter road to oblivion for decades. He's been through crooked promoters, bad label deals, playing in dives, and crummy travel accommodations. Russell likes to be paid, and paid well, but he's down in the dregs of the music biz using it for another purpose: all this time he's been chasing a dark, shimmering muse down highways and swampy backroads, across oceans and continents; he's in it to touch and wrestle with song itself. Love and Fear is the record that comes after Hotwalker, the enigmatic, beautifully flawed, ambitious jewel in his large catalog. Russell goes even deeper into the subterranean on Love and Fear, singing "I scratch the surface at my own peril," on the spooky, atmospheric "Beautiful Trouble"; those words are the very mantra for this set. The tune becomes musique noir with its hand percussion, skeletal reverbed guitar, and Russell's slowly whispering growl that's simultaneously an exhortation to revel in the fruits of the night and a an unapologetic confession. His desire for the edges of marginal experience is found in the shadows. The song is the signature and silhouette of those encounters, a postcard from the dark side, where real people actually do live. Russell's got a fine wrecking crew here: Fats Kaplin is back on steel, Andrew Hardin and Gurf Morlix provide six-string and slide muscle, respectively, Rick Richards and Glen Fukanaga provide the basic rhythm section with the help of percussionist/engineer Mark Hallman, Joel Jose Guzman is on-board on accordion and keyboards, as is Barry Walsh. Produced by Russell and Morlix, the album actually begins with "The Pugilist at 59." Morlix's slide and Hardin's snaky electric guitars let Russell plunge right into the deep: ". . .A handful of vitamins, drop 'em on the floor/My ex-girlfriends are laughing from the refrigerator door/I put their photos up there/we talk all the time/But they ain't talking back now/the pugilist is 59...." It's a song about extraordinary ambition laid to waste in the course of living a day at a time, as prospects have been reduced, and rewards are less than few. It isn't all slow and mournful; sometimes it's just pissed off, as in the bad-ass, snarling, blues rock of "Stealing Electricity." It's about a dead Mexican man on a power line who tried to steal what he couldn't afford. There are numerous songs in various shades of folk, rock, and country; songs about the hope and death of love, and its rebirth -- pick one: "Sound of One Heart Breaking," with Gretchen Peters -- who appears on a slew of cuts -- the hunted, tired, broken-bottle truth of "Ash Wednesday" (again with Peters), another of the album's gems; the quiet, whispering "K.C. Violin." "Four Chambered Heart," seemingly a morality tale, has a ZZ Top riff, and sheet metal percussion (literally) fueling it. Other themes emerge on Love and Fear, like "Stolen Children," about those faces you see on milk cartons and in your junk mail. There's also the tender shimmer of "It Goes Away," about time's cure-all for pain. Even "Old Heart," the late-night jazzed-up, old-styled Tom Waits' number that closes it, is about facing another day to seek love and meaning in less than ideal circumstances. An off-kilter piano and a B-3 entwine with whispering brushed cymbals, and tell a peculiar truth: "Let the big heart rage and rhyme/love is wasted on the young...And a new day will begin and then/We'll master love and not pretend/Old heart get out of bed...." While Russell goes back into the broken terrain explored thematically on Hotwalker, Russell digs deeper; he finds the tenderness and the multi-dimensional humanity in his characters -- he's more John Fante than Charles Bukowski this time out -- and celebrates the quiet heroism in their continuing to hold on to the hope of love no matter how great the odds. There is great love here, but it lives in dirty sheets and shambolic apartments and on street corners, as well as in quiet and desperate houses in the suburbs. Where there is love there are scars, there is emotional theft; the scars are here in spades. But there is redemption -- albeit uncommonly revealed -- all over this disc, and it's magical in a scruffily elegant way. Tough and tender, Russell's at the top of his game and has found a near-perfect union of the two mercurial magnets: poetry and song.
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AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek