Russ Tolman. Compass & Map.

tolman-cd-450x450Mention 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.

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Cheap Wine. Mary and The Fairy.

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Blabber’n’Smoke has occasionally ventured into the world of American influenced Italian rock music with bands like Sacri Cuori and Lowlands proving that there’s a genuine feel for the sound in the boot heeled peninsula. Some time ago we spoke to Edward Abbiatti of Lowlands about this and he recommended a band, Cheap Wine and weirdly enough the very same crew recently reached out and sent us a copy of their latest album. A live affair, recorded in Pesaro, Italy it portrays the five piece band as a very accomplished bunch of rockers who inhabit that world frequented by the likes of Tom Waits and Nick Cave although they don’t have the gruffness of the former nor the grimness of the latter. In addition the band (named after an old Green On Red Song) have a definite touch of Steve Wynn’s Dream syndicate about them (Mr. Wynn has enjoyed playing live with them in the past) and there is a hint of E Street balladry, Velvet Underground streetsmarts and Waterboys’ epic sweep on some of the songs while their European heritage flickers into life here and there, a cafe come cabaret loucheness stalking them.

Mary and The Fairy (the title derived from two of the songs on the disc) features eight songs from the band’s back catalogue that they thought deserved to be captured for posterity, songs that in concert stretch out beyond the studio versions allowing the instruments space to shine. It’s a great recording, the sound crisp with only occasional audience applause to remind one that this is live music. The majority of the songs sit astride piano driven melodies with Marco Diamantini’s vocals well to the fore, the lyrics all in English, his accent only just noticeable, his voice slightly wearied. As the band stretch out there’s acres of fluid and fierce guitar soloing that adds fire to the songs making for some invigorating listening.

Three of the songs exceed the ten minute mark, all mini epics. Behind The Bars is a showcase for the excellent piano skills of Alesso Raffaelli with the song opening like a Springsteen jailhouse opera. The guitars flail away but the piano solo midway through is mesmerising. Mary opens with Diamantini describing the titular “queen of drop out street” as if he were Kevin Ayers or Lou Reed as the band creep around him creating an atmospheric milieu until a guttural guitar solo weighs in seven minutes into the song shredding away until the end. The Fairy Has Your Wings (for Valeria)  is another seesaw of intimate lyrics and gentle instrumentation interspersed with thunderous bursts of guitar fury with some excellent calm in the centre of the storm in the shape of another fine piano solo from Raffaelli.

Away from the Sturm und Drang of these longer numbers the band offer the effortless stroll of Based On Lies, the autumnal ballad of Dried Leaves and the nocturnal delights of the noirish waltz that is La Buveuse. The oddly named I Like Your Smell (you need to listen to the lyrics here) is a minor masterpiece with the addition of an accordion allowing the band to sound like an Italian version of The Felice Brothers.

For a live album this is a mighty fine listen even for anyone who isn’t aware of the original versions and for this reviewer a sweet invitation to delve into the band’s back catalogue.

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