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No New Abnormal

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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 Guitar Legend Russ Tolman Makes a Rare Stop in Brooklyn

Russ Tolman was the leader of one of the 80s’ most legendary guitar bands, True West. Though never as famous as their pals the Dream Syndicate – Tolman and Steve Wynn were in the equally legendary Suspects, and Wynn contributed some gloriously savage lead guitar to True West’s cover of Pink Floyd’s Lucifer Sam – Tolman’s songwriting was no less brilliant. And True West were every bit as incendiary live, fellow Telecaster player Richard McGrath dueling it out onstage with Tolman night after night. The band’s first two albums, Hollywood Holiday and Drifters are iconic: with its brooding layers of reverb guitar and Tolman’s ominous lyricism, the latter is easily one of the fifty greatest rock records ever made.

The original True West lineup hung it up in 1985; there were some sporadic but rewarding reunion tours in the mid-to-late zeros. All the while, Tolman has been releasing albums here and there, from Byrdsy folk-rock to low-key electronic experimentation. If he’s ever played Brooklyn before, it’s been a long time; if he hasn’t, then his show at Pete’s on Sept 14 at 8:30 PM will be his debut in the borough. Either way, he’s overdue.

Tolman’s latest recordings are a couple of singles. With it stomping beat and a whirling lead guitar line that brings to mind another great 80s guitar band, the Rain Parade, Marla Jane could be an upbeat track from True West’s peak era. Something About a Rowboat switches in a mandolin for the Tele Tolman might have played it on thirty years ago. Tunewise, this breakup anthem is just as strong – it’s interesting to compare Tolman’s flinty vocal delivery with the bravado of True West frontman Gavin Blair. Awfully heartwarming to see such an important, underrated artist from back in the day still at it and still at the top of his game.