Album Review: Tom Russell – Blood and Candle Smoke
1. Tom Russell writes songs about a fading, dangerous West — the same one that Calexico (who backs Russell up on this record) conjures musically and that Cormac McCarthy has traversed so famously. Russell’s latest, Blood and Candle Smoke, is a tour de force that already stands tall as one of the best releases of the year. A true renaissance man, Russell’s background includes stints as a criminologist (which he addresses here: “You may think I’m just some jive folk singer, no, I’m a master in the art of criminology”), taxi driver, Nigerian school teacher, painter, writer, and most prominently, a songwriter. All this experience converges to create a concept album that embodies the American Western fantasy, in an appropriately abstract way.
2. Russell, born in Los Angeles, has always had a western edge to his music, most famously on his cockfighting epic “Gallo Del Cielo”, covered by Joe Ely on Letters to Laredo. In the last decade he has settled in El Paso, and the surrounding land has come forth in his music, beginning with 2001’s Borderland. He shows his affinity for our country’s diminishing river towns on “American Rivers”, the ones mythologized by his heroes Carl Sandburg, Walt Whitman and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott:
“Now they flow past Casinos and Hamburger stands/
They are waving farewell to the kid on the land…./
With their jig-sawed old arteries/
All clogged and defiled/
No open heart miracle’s/
Gonna turn ’em back wild”
He furthers this concept on “Mississippi River Running Backward”, which opens with strains of “Old Man River”, but turns to a land (presumably post-Katrina New Orleans) so devastated that he “doesn’t need an Old Testament prophet to tell [him]/ We ain’t in no promised land”.
3. From this land, Russell extracts both truth and fiction, which, in this context, run dangerously close together. “Crosses of San Carlos” crafts the characters of two Native American boys who sneak away from the teetotaling reservation for a little liquid pleasure. In the glow of a “methamphetamine sunrise”, the boys become two more crosses to dot the side of the highway with their brothers, images of the dying Native west. He also tells about “The Most Dangerous Woman in America”, which recalls Mother Jones, the guardian angel of union miners in Mt. Olive, Illinois. Russell sets the story of a junkie who goes home to bury his father and continues the cycle of violence that the town cannot seem to shake.
4. Most affecting, however, is the way that Russell relates his personal experiences as a resident of the same land. “Guadalupe”, written during a lonely holiday in Mexico City, tells of Tom’s ride with a taxi driver on a tour where he discovered the true passion of belief through seeing the participants a Mexican Catholic parade wait to have their children blessed and baptized. He unabashedly declares his love for his wife on “Finding You”, where he “prays to any God who leaves his light on late at night” to express his gratitude in a simple, understated song illuminated by his naked, quavering voice. He also draws the veil back on his personal history — on “Nina Simone”, relating the first time he heard the jazz singer’s voice drifting out the window of a Mexican bookstore and the way it stopped him in his tracks.
5. There is too much to write about this record. Russell has created a piece of art that brands us all with the mystery, tragedy, and hope of American history, particularly those of us that live in the Southwest. Russell expounds on each song on his own blog, which helps bring more life and understanding to the layers upon layers that make up Blood and Candle Smoke. Quite simply put, this record is a masterpiece that reveals more unflinching truth with each listen.
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