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Tom Russell

Mesabi – 2011 (Shout! Factory)

Reviewed by Dan MacIntosh

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CDs by Tom Russell

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.