Having just encouraged everybody to buy an album in my last post, I have another one to recommend.
I have mentioned before that, when I get a new album, my general approach is to listen the first couple of times in very general way. I try to get a sense of the mood, themes, and high points of the album so that gradually I learn what I should be paying attention to, and figuring out both the best mood and perspective to appreciate the album, and also how it works.
I just got “Blood and Candle Smoke” by Tom Russell (not to be confused with Tom Rush). It’s the first album of his that I’ve heard, and it’s great and one of the things that most impresses me about the album is how brilliantly sequenced it is, and how the album progresses. Listening to it felt like one of the most surprising, involving, and emotional first listening that I’ve had in a long time, because the album took me through the process that I described as it progressed. Listening to it I felt like, without me working at all, it was teaching me as the album progressed how to listen to it.
Putting it on for the first time, the first couple of songs were good, but felt just a little bit obvious. The told stories — interesting ones, and well crafted, but they didn’t surprise much. I found myself feeling a little bit disappointing, at that point, that it seemed well crafted but not as smart as it could be, it seemed like it just lacked the extra effort that takes a song from competent workmanship to a performance. Little did I realize that that they were just setting me up.
The most important way in which the album progresses is the relationship between Tom Russell and the band. AMG describes the production on this album as being different from anything he had done before and so it’s particularly impressive that it succeeds so completely:
Co-produced with Craig Schumacher, and cut at Wave Lab Studios in Tucson with members of Calexico and others, it sounds like nothing else in his catalog. Russell played his guitar and sang live with the band, providing little direction and allowing the musicians to open up a natural space around him. Instrumentally, this collaboration employs everything from mariachi and jazz horn sections, reverbed electric guitars, organic acoustics, and miniscule drum kits to hand percussion, marimbas, accordions, talking drums, Vox organs, and Rhodes pianos. The backing and duet vocals by songwriter Gretchen Peters add warmth, depth, dimension, and presence to Russell’s songs.
However it was that Russell invited the band to be willing to take creative authority on some songs they more than rise to the occasion. In the first half of the album they provide excellent backing for Tom Russell with plenty of power on “Santa Ana Wind” and drive on “Criminology” but as you go deeper into the album they feel more and more like full creative partners, and the songs become less story-like, less linear, and more directly emotional.
Take, as an example, “Mississippi River Runnin’ Backwards” the song almost exactly at the mid-point of the album. You can hear some of the progression that I’m talking about within the course of the song. The song is about New Orleans after Katrina. It starts with a quotation from “Old Man River” and a scene-setting opening verse which work but, again, feel constructed (and make me think back to Randy Newman’s “Louisiana 1927″) but the song really lands (like a punch) when it gets to the chorus for the second time, when the backup-vocals answer his call of “everybody sing” and the band plays with so much energy and so much ache at the same time, it pays off the emotional promise of the verses. At that moment the song is great, with no qualifications necessary.
I will warn you that, for some reason, the .mp3 conversion isn’t kind to the song. The texture and depth of the music are lacking and, in particular, the piano is rich sounding in the original recording and thin and slightly tiny in the .mp3. But, really, buy the album — it’s worth it. It’s good and it’s surprising. What more can you ask for?
As one last note, I was realizing that it would be convenient for me to try to finish up the Living Room Songs post by Thanksgiving. So I will pick up the pace on that, so I encourage everybody to keep checking in.
Update: Link to song added.