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A Dark, Jangly Americana Masterpiece From Russ Tolman

Back in the 80s Russ Tolman led the psychedelic Americana band True West, who were best known for their feral twin-Telecaster duels. He put out three albums with them, if you count the first ep and the posthumous outtakes-and-demos collection. The second one, Drifters is one of the fifty best rock records ever made, a jangling, clanging, surrealistically haunting masterpiece. But all the guitar savagery wouldn’t have counted for much if Tolman wasn’t such a slashing tunesmith and evocative lyricist. Since then he’s made a name for himself as a connoisseur of western noir, a sort of slightly less prolific Steve Wynn (his bandmate in the legendary/obscure Suspects, Wynn’s pre-Dream Syndicate college group).

Tolman’s latest album, Goodbye El Dorado – streaming at Spotify – is a mellower, more carefully crafted take on the True West sound, a masterful intertwine of acoustic and electric guitars along with mandolin, electric piano and a swinging rhythm section. He’s never written more vividly or with more allusive grimness. It’s a historically-infused song cycle about how people are drawn to California, only to see their dreams dashed. As a native Californian, Tolman has the inside track.

With its border-rock accordion, the album’s first song, Los Angeles, is typical in the sense that Tolman never lets on to what happens to the woman at the center of the story. He doesn’t usually hit anything head-on: he takes you down to the crossroads and lets you wait for the devil, alone.

The album’s best cut is Kid, a searingly spot-on account of a girl from a broken home whose teachers think that she “might be talented at art,” but her refrain is “Please don’t make me go home.” The janglerock backdrop, with Kirk Swan’s incisive terse guitar fills and Robert Lloyd’s mandolin, is a little more gentle and sparkly than True West typically was, but it’s obviously the same writer here.

The 6/8 ballad North Hollywood Dream traces the story of an Idaho kid who lands in LA, only to watch his hopes drift slowly away. In 405, over an inteweave of guitars and Rhodes piano – that’s the bandleader with Swan and Lloyd – Tolman paints a wryly knowing picture of LA freeway hell. The album’s title track is a shuffling Bakersfield country tune with mariachi horns: “Goodbye El Dorado, you’ve been a good companion, I’ve been a dutiful son,” the narrator muses as he heads out for good.

Yuba City – as in, “I’m going down to Yuba City, if I’m going down at all” – is another escape anthem with a bizarre mix of tinkling saloon piano, soaring pedal steel and string synth, with a tantalizingly gorgeous guitar solo in the middle. Moody brass, Kevin Jarvis’ ominous drumbeats and ex-Dream Syndicateer Dave Provost’s supple bass groove permeate the bolero ambience of California Winter, a wrenchingly heartbroken narrative: “In the merry month of November I turned my thoughts to the dead,” Tolman intones. The funereal outro, with its exchange of riffs between the horns, reverb guitar and organ is as good as anything True West ever recorded.

Do You Like the Way is a ruthlessly hilarious yet sympathetic portrait of a guy who doesn’t know when to stop: “You’re a free spirit, or at least you like to drink them.” Tolman raises the sarcasm factor several notches with the country ballad Almost Heaven, a twistedly cynical California wildfire scenario. He stays on the country tip for the album’s most epic number, Take It Easy Take It Slow, spiced with sparse twelve-string guitar and pedal steel.

“Knew it was the border from the giant ‘Need weed’ sign/And the liquor stores in the rearview mirror on the California side,” Tolman explains in the caustically funny coastal roadtrip tale Pacific Rain. Honkytonk piano mingles with a famous Stones guitar riff and  swooshy organ in Satellite Bar, a celestial place with dollar beer night once a month, free popcorn…and a dogwater bowl by the door. Tolman brings the record full circle with the grimly jangly Time Flies, a folksy, aphoristic take on the perils of getting older but not wiser. Good to see a revered cult figure – not the Jim Jones kind – still at the top of his game.

80s Psychedelic Rock Cult Hero Russ Tolman at the Top of His Uneasy Game at Pete’s Last Week

It feels so good to be alive.

That’s the punchline of a song called Shot You Down. In context, it’s one of the most vengefully delicious lyrics ever written. It’s arguably the best track on True West’s 1982 cult classic Drifters album. In his Pete’s Candy Store debut Thursday night, such that it was, True West bandleader Russ Tolman didn’t play that one. But he did play Hollywood Holiday. That’s the title track of the group’s first ep, a snarling mashup of post-Velvets rock, Americana and psychedelia.

The music media at the time called that stuff “paisley underground.” It’s a horribly inaccurate term. True West and their contemporaries the Dream Syndicate, Long Ryders, Green on Red and a whole bunch of other great bands weren’t exactly underground. As the mergers and acquisitions of the deregulated Reagan 80s devastated the radio waves, college radio suddenly was the closest thing to Spotify available at the time. All those bands ruled the college charts. 

And fashion had nothing to do with it. While most kids of the era were bopping to the cheesy sounds of DX7 synthesizers, these groups clanged out a gritty, sometimes trippy sound with the volume and fearlessness of punk but also a country twang and a willingness to go beyond punk’s three-minute marker.

The original incarnation of True West didn’t last long – they broke up in 1985. Tolman reunited the band for a memorable couple of  tours in the late zeros, and most auspiciously, joined forced with his old guitar sparring partner Richard McGrath and a series of collaborators for a well-received west coast tour last year.

Tolman’s a band guy – solo acoustic isn’t his default setting. But with one anthem after another, he reaffirmed that if anything, he’s an even better songwriter than he was thirty-plus years ago. On the surface, Hollywood Holiday is about a sleazy hookup. But it also might be about a murder. In very few words, Tolman built a series of scenarios which could have gone any number of ways: it’s up to the listener to figure out how they resolve, if at all.

And the tunesmithing was sublime. As with his lyrics, an unease and a frequent gallows humor pervade his music. The breakup tune Marla Jane and the wryly boisterous Something About a Rowboat – which as it turns out recounts a thwarted booze-fueled pickup scenario – were among the catchiest. Several others, notably the surrealistically apt Two Drinks From Genius brought to mind Tolman’s old college bandmate Steve Wynn, who was in the house. Was Tolman going to go up the fretboard for those two evil little chordlets as the chorus of Hollywood Holiday turned around? Yesssssss! He closed with a vicious, 60-style garage-psych number: That’s My Story and I’m Sticking To It: “You can sign my name to the story, because I won’t,” he intoned over its minor-key changes.

Shows like this you walk away from thinking to yourself, damn, after all these years, it still feels so good to be alive. Not to give anything away, but we may be seeing a lot more of Tolman in New York in the coming months: watch this space!