Mention the so-called “Paisley Underground” and folk will wax wonderfully on The Dream Syndicate, The Rain Parade, The Long Ryders, Green On Red and The Bangles. Whether or not this was an actual movement or just some bands lumped together geographically (LA for the most part) is still moot and several of the main actors actively disavow the term these days. Anyway one of the bands lumped in here was True West, a name rarely heard these days, who released two albums and who at one point seemed poised to break into the big time. Despite touring with REM, noted by Prince, front page on the music weeklies and lined up for an Old Grey Whistle Test TV slot while on a UK tour (nixed due to work visa issues) unfortunately that didn’t happen and they disbanded in the mid eighties.
Key to True West’s sound was guitarist and songwriter Russ Tolman who quit the band in 1985 to pursue a solo career which kicked off strongly with several impressive albums released between 1986 and 2000 before everything kind of petered out. There were a couple of single releases while Tolman beavered away in producing and occasional live dates including a short lived True West reunion. Now, 30 years after going it alone, Tolman has geared up again with an avowed intention to get back to recording and touring and his opening salvo is this handsome retrospective plucked from his back catalogue, 20 songs in all. It’s a welcome reminder for those who have followed him and an excellent introduction for anyone new to him as it follows his trajectory from grungy desert rock to synthesized LA country music.
Handsomely packaged with informative liner notes by Pat Thomas and Tolman himself the album avoids a strict chronological delivery of the songs but broadly speaking it opens with earlier and snarlier cuts before settling down somewhat into the late nineties before ending with latter day songs (although it closes with a 1994 number). This allows one to follow Tolman’s progress including his vocal delivery (he states in the liner notes that when recording the first album, “I was deathly afraid of singing – I’d never done it before). Despite his misgivings, his voice is always intriguing, on the early songs perhaps betraying a tendency to delve into a punkish sneer (no bad thing) before settling into a fine approximation of Lou Reed and Lloyd Cole, a cool laidback narrative voice. Song writing wise however he springs fully formed from the womb and the compilation is a strong argument that he be considered in the same vein as contemporaries such as Steve Wynn, Chuck Prophet and Howe Gelb.
From his first album, Totem Poles & Glory Holes, Looking For An Angel is a punk like thrash of guitars with Tolman sneering away and the song not a million miles away from early Dream syndicate or Giant Sand. Down In Earthquake Town, represented here by two songs is richer in its textures with Planes, Trains And Automobiles a sublime mixture of exotic percussion and Spanish guitar as Tolman offers a flyblown tale of lost love with a wonderful twang in his semi-spoken delivery. By the time of Goodbye Joe (1990) Tolman is really at the top of his form with Marla Jane as exhilarating as Chuck Prophet’s recent offerings, a thunderous riff topped with some delicious guitar curls it stomps along with a fury. The opening lines to Blame It On The Girl (Ah fuck it, just throw it away…) lead into a spectacularly dynamic slice of rock’n’roll that beggar’s belief, the hip vocals and squalling guitars the equal of any Tom Petty song.
As he sashays into the nineties Tolman settles down somewhat and the brace of songs here find him fronting a melodic jangled rock as he becomes more comfortable with his voice. Something About A Rowboat and Sleepin’ All Alone do recall Lloyd Cole’s Commotions particularly with the vocal delivery but then again there’s the snarling That’s My Story And I’m Sticking To It which returns to the Paisley Underground days with organ jabs and tortured guitar reminiscent of Green On Red. 1998’s City Lights album offers the delightful Monterey with its sweet delivery disguising the acerbic lyrics and the laid-back country rock of Salinas which again belies Tolman’s fine digs at the picture perfect scene one might expect. More up to date there’s one song from New Quadraphonic Highway, a visionary album that had Tolman experimenting with synthesizers to create his notion of cosmic cowboy music as he amalgamated them with pedal steel (played by Tom Heyman). Most recently, there’s Los Angeles, a digital only single from 2013 which, after several years of inactivity, was the first blooming of his rebirth and which sweeps along with a multilayered guitar, organ and keyboards swirl and another song which should ring bells for anyone into any of the acts we’ve already mentioned.
The album closes with a 1994 song, Dry Your Pretty Eyes, a song that somewhat apes The Velvet Underground but is a fine encapsulation of Tolman’s talent as he has evolved into an excellent singer and an acute songwriter. As Pat Thomas, the author of the album’s liner notes remarked on the Paisley Underground, it was a “marriage of classic rock and punk” and on Dry Your Pretty Eyes Tolman proves that he can do that in spades.
Summing up, if you have any interest at all in Steve Wynn, Chuck Prophet et al then you have a duty to listen to this. Hopefully there’s more to come.