Tom Russell’s Blood and Candle Smoke – Nearly Flawless
Tom Russell is an artist in every sense of the word. He writes beautiful lyrics, he puts those words to some fantastic music, he writes books, and he can paint like a God. He encompasses the true meaning of the word artist. But my familiarity of Mr. Russell lies mostly in his music. He writes from the heart and his songs tell great stories, sometimes true stories he himself has experienced.
His latest record, Blood and Candle Smoke is no exception. The tunes on this new record are all so abundant in texture and the images projected into your brain are a result of his strong lyrics. You will believe you are watching it on film instead of hearing it. I guess you could say it is so good, it confuses the senses. I’m not sure there is anyone on the scene today who can tell a story via music as well as Tom Russell.
The first track on Blood and Candle Smoke is East of Woodstock, West of Viet Nam. This song is an account of Tom Russell’s stint in Nigeria in the late 60’s. It’s a brilliant contrast or comparison between him teaching in Africa while at the same time others his age back in the states are delving in the world of drugs and free love that occurred within the “hippie” counter-culture. Russell sings, “moveable feast of war and memory, a dark old lullaby/it was a smoke of a thousand cook-fires it was the wrong end of a gun/Yeah, East of Woodstock, West of Viet Nam”. He paints a graphically explicit picture of his personal adventure while teaching in Nigeria. We, as listeners, definitely feel as if we are there, surrounded by the red clay, the dust and smoke. The horns, the guitars, the snare drum all add to the mood of this brilliantly written and arranged song. It’s an impressive way to start the record.
The fourth track on the record, Criminology, continues the autobiography put to music, with Mr. Russell telling us his own personal story in song. As it says in his bio, he graduated from the University of California with a Master´s Degree in Criminology. He even taught school in Nigeria during the Biafran war. “I had a gun pointed at my head on several occasions, yeah Nadine I was scared/something about a black man with a machine gun will make you wish you said your prayers/It was Nigeria in 1969”. That’s where it all started with Mr. Russell. Later the song tells us about 1971 in Vancouver and 1973 in “Canada again”.
Mr. Russell sings the song but I had to do a little research to discover that bit of information. His voice sounded so different from the usual strong baritone we have grown accustomed to, going instead with a higher pitch to his voice. “It’s sort of a West African/reggae song. I must be channeling somebody or something I heard,” he commented in his bio.
Mr. Russell recruited Calexico members Joey Burns on bass and guitars, John Convertino on drums and Jacob Valenzuela on trumpets, plus Barry Walsh on keyboards and frequent collaborator Gretchen Peters and the Oshogbo Orphan Choir on harmony vocals. He decided on these musicians after hearing the soundtrack to that Dylan film, I’m Not There. The songs that stood out the most to him were the ones performed by Calexico. All of the musicians are superb here. Gretchen Peterson’s vocal harmonization adds another dimension and compliments Mr. Russell’s voice perfectly.
This is a wonderful record. What else would you expect from a consummate story teller the caliber of Tom Russell? If you are in to Americana or folk music, or whatever you would like to call it, you must absolutely add this masterpiece to your collection. It’s as close to flawless as one can possibly get. Tom Russell may have even achieved the impossible goal of perfection with Blood and Candle Smoke (Shout Factory) just released.