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Tom Russell

Blood and Candle Smoke – 2009 (Shout! Factory)

Reviewed by Don Armstrong

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CDs by Tom Russell

Tom Russell has always had a broader agenda than simply recording hit songs. In Criminology, a quirky account of his time teaching the subject in Ibadan, Nigeria, he sings, "I know a little bit about a lot things." True, and it comes to bear in disparate ways in this collection of new material that brings together many elements of his previous recordings. Literary references, black culture, southwestern themes, autobiography - all here. Finding You is a simple, straightforward love song, but most of "Blood and Candle Smoke" finds Russell exploring the recesses of American (and African) culture, seemingly in search of something.

His sound has evolved (or vacillated) through the years. That continues, with back up by the Tucson band Calexico, notably Jacob Valenzuela's trumpet. Yet Russell typically finds the core of his passion in songs of regret and loss and the sound of an acoustic guitar and accordion. True here once again.

In a 25-year career with many highlights, he has never been more nakedly personal or poetic, more deeply affecting, than he is on Guadalupe, confessing his religious doubts and needs in a story that speaks more to his feelings than his varied experiences.