Tom Russell


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There's a couplet in "When Legends Die" that expresses what drives Mesabi, songwriter Tom Russell's latest effort: "Well, most of 'em are gone, but they fly around/Like angels in my unconscious mind...." Full of musically and lyrically imaginative legends, myths, elegies, and homages, the songs on Mesabi speak readily from the very grain of Russell's craft. It is named for the iron range in northern Minnesota near Hibbing, the birthplace of Bob Dylan, the muse of this set. Russell makes no apologies: the title track quotes from "Don't Think Twice, It's Alright," its chord structure borrows -- liberally -- from "Love Minus Zero/No Limit." Near album's end is "A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall," with Lucinda Williams and Calexico. Russell expands his sonic palette here: Calexico, Viktor Krauss, Van Dyke Parks, Gretchen Peters, co-producer/pianist Barry Walsh, Will Kimbrough, David Henry, and more appear. Jacob Valenzuela's trumpet is another notable voice. Mesabi was recorded in different studios, and hosts a wide variety of sounds and textures. "Farewell Never Never Land" is an elegy for child actor Bobby Driscoll, (the voice of Peter Pan in the Disney production; he also played Jim Hawkins in Treasure Island.) "The Lonesome Death of Ukelele Ike," a ragtime swinger, reflects the Disney star's positive outlook, though he died penniless and forgotten, making the tune a bitter irony. "Sterling Hayden" is among the album's strongest songs, named for the tough, hard-bitten actor. Russell -- with his beautiful weave of Spanish tinges, country, and folk -- aurally paints a portrait of the man's complexities. "Furious Love (For Liz)," an acoustic waltz for Elizabeth Taylor, paints a romantic portrait of old Juarez (where she once lived). Juarez and the towns along the U.S.-Mexican border and their history figure large in Russell's songs because he lives along it: "And God Created Border Towns," Goodnight, Juarez" (the deepest, most emotionally powerful cut here), and "Jai Alai" offer poignant contrasts between past and present history in poetic yet documentary images. "Roll the Credits, Johnny" is a rock romance worthy of old Hollywood. Russell understands the moral compass of humans: "Heart Within a Heart" (a fine gospel number featuring the McCrary Sisters) and "Love Abides" both assert that love must triumph over fear -- or else. Set-closer "Road to Nowhere," the title song to director Monte Hellman's film, is a cut-time rocker. An assertion and a warning, its wisdom comes from a protagonist who's lived out there on the soul-endangering edges and made it back. With Telecasters and drums driving, and Valenzuela's mariachi trumpet singing above it, it's a cracking way to close an album that defines what Americana is.

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