Tom Russell music is especially great if you're nostalgic for old Hollywood and early rock & roll. The opener on "Mesabi," for instance, is an amplified list of rock & roll pioneers. However, there's more about old movie stars than old rockers. Elizabeth Taylor is saluted in Furious Love (For Liz)
, while the tragic life of Bobby Driscoll, of "Peter Pan" fame, is explored in Farewell Never Never Land
. Russell is a skilled writer and a knowledgeable musical historian.
However, the dramatic vibrato in his voice starts to wear on the listener after a while. When he gets to A Land Called "Way Out There", one starts to feel like they're stuck listening to an old man telling his old stories, but can't interrupt him long enough to make a polite exit. It's a little like watching one of those episodes of the old VHI series Behind the Music. Every story's the same: Young person becomes a star; young star falls from grace; young former star lives with regrets. It may be a true story, much repeated. But how many times do we need to hear it under so many different names?
The album closes with Russell singing a duet with Lucinda Williams on Bob Dylan's A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall, but it is just one too many downers, on a downer album. With "Mesabi," Tom Russell tells the truth. Next time, though, maybe he can mix in a little joy with all the sorrow.