By Eleni P. Austin
Sometimes great music just falls between the cracks. Even as it exists almost under your nose, and when you discover it, you kind of kick yourself for missing out. But you also say a silent prayer of thanks that you are allowed to experience a new musical epiphany.
You may feel all these conflicting emotions when you listen to the music of Luther Russell. Although the 47-year old singer-songwriter began his career almost 30 years ago, he has mostly flown under the radar.
Music is a family tradition for Luther. His grandfather, Bob wrote the lyrics for Duke Ellington’s “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore,” as well as the Hollies’ “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother,” during a career that spanned nearly 40 years. His grandmother, Hannah wrote music and movies for children, and his Great Uncle, Bud Green, co-wrote standards like “Sentimental Journey,” “Alabamy Bound” and “Once In A While.”
Luther grew up loving music, especially the Beatles. Every night as he fell asleep his Mickey Mouse record player was spinning “Sgt. Pepper.” He received a drum kit before he started Kindergarten. There was a piano in the house and he banged on that a bit too. As a kid he drew inspiration from seminal records by Stevie Wonder, Van Morrison and Chicago. He began fooling around with a little Tascam recorder documenting early stabs at songwriting.
Luther came of age along the Central Coast of California, in towns like Big Sur and Carmel. The communities were a curious mixture of laid-back and conservative. He gravitated toward the beach, hanging with surfers and local burnouts. By his early teens, he’d already gained a reputation as a protean drummer. His friend Rein’s older brother Oliver, (Ollie for short), gave him a cheap guitar and taught him the rudiments. Playing music with Ollie gave him entre’ to an older, cooler crowd. Ollie was killed when a truck struck his motorbike. He lingered 12 days and then he was gone. He was only 19 years old.
Devastated, Luther headed to Los Angeles and stayed with relatives. Just 17, he connected with Tobi Miller while buying strings at Guitar Center. The pair became fast friends and decided to start their own band. He relocated to L.A. permanently and rented a garage space from an old friend of his mother’s.
Once Tobi finished high school, his pal Jakob asked to join the fledgling group, when drummer Aaron Brooks joined, their line-up was complete. Taking the name The Bootheels, they paid sly homage Jakob’s dad’s song, “Mr. Tambourine Man.” It was the late ‘80s, and the four-piece endured the rigors of the Sunset Strip “Pay-To-Play” scene. They never got past recording a few demos, before other commitments got in the way. Jakob started art school, while Luther and Tobi briefly became The 45’s. A couple of years later Tobi and Jakob formed the Wallflowers.
Although he was suddenly on his own, Luther was completely immersed in the L.A. music scene. Jason Hiller was a friend from The Bootheels days, he was also a crack bass player, the duo began making music together. With the addition of Dave Sobel and Chris Joyner on keys, plus drummer Craig Aaronson, the Freewheelers were born.
Their sound was a rootsy Country Rock/Soul hybrid that seemed influenced by Gram Parsons, Otis Redding and Randy Newman in equal measure. They quickly made a name for themselves gigging around town. Signed to DGC, an imprint of Geffen Records, their self-titled debut was produced by John Fischbach, (Circle Jerks, Carole King, Stevie Wonder), and released in 1991.
A few years later the band landed on Rick Rubin’s American label and recruited drummer John Hofer to replace the departing Craig Aaronson. Waiting For George, (the title a playful shout-out to producer George Drakoulias), arrived in 1996. Despite sharing similar musical sensibilities with bands like Wilco, Son Volt and the Jayhawks, and a soupcon of style slightly pilfered from ‘70s era Mad Dogs and Englishmen, the Freewheelers supercharged sound couldn’t gain a real foothold in the music industry. After relocating to Portland, the band quietly called it quits.
Luther quickly collated several of his songs and released his first solo album, Lowdown World (And Other Assorted Songs) in 1997. Concurrently, he was acquiring a reputation as a sensitive producer. As he successfully toggled between solo projects and production work, he hooked up with ex-Black Crowes guitarist Marc Ford and formed Federale. Although they inked a deal with Geffen/Insterscope they were dropped from the label, crashing and burning before they ever really got off the ground.
As the 21st century dawned, Luther seemed to have found his niche, shifting between production gigs and making his own music. He released his own albums sporadically. Down At Kit’s arrived in 1999, Spare Change in 2001, Repair in 2007, the Motorbike EP in 2010 and Invisible Audience in 2011. In the last few years, he has co-written songs with Weezer and played guitar in Robyn Hitchcock’s L.A. Squires band.
He even found time to form Those Pretty Wrongs with Big Star drummer, Jody Stephens. The duo repaired to Memphis’ venerable Ardent recording studio, wrote and recorded 10 tracks that became their eponymous 2016 debut. He is currently finishing his sixth long player, but in the meantime, Hanky Panky Records has released a career-spanning two-CD set entitled Selective Memories.
The first CD kicks into gear with a couple of rambunctious Bootheels songs. “Got Me On My Knees” feels influenced equally by Cow Punk and ragged Power Punk from Minneapolis bands like the Replacements and Husker Du. Blitzkrieg guitars crash into brisk bass lines, yelpy vocals and a pogo rhythm. “Interstate 68 Blues” is ragged but right. Static-y guitars and a walloping beat nearly camouflage cryptic lyrics that recall the chaotic aftermath of Ollie’s fatal collision.
Four tracks document his earliest solo efforts following the dissolution of the Bootheels. “I Got A Woman” matches urgent acoustic riffs with lyrics that pay homage to his first grown-up romantic relationship. His playful vocal gymnastics assert a boyish charm that is hard to resist. “I’ll Keep Away” amps up the intensity, as Punky power chords ride roughshod over rubbery bass lines and a whiplash beat. The lyrics offer a distaff version of a bitter break-up, asserting “You want a lover that’s all you want, you want a lover to call you on the phone/You want an answer so I’ll give it to you now…don’t rescue me.”
On “Thursday Girl” stripped-down guitars are paired with sidewinder bass, kinetic percussion and woozy keys courtesy Johnny Appleseed. At this point Luther is clearly sifting through myriad influences and trying on different musical hats. “Thursday…” echoes the art noise aesthetic of Sonic Youth while “The Man Hurts You” is clearly under the spell of Chicago Soul.
The Freewheelers are well represented on seven songs, only two of which, “Little Miss Fortune” and “Let The Music Bring A Smile,” have seen the light of day. The demos included here range from the gritty, sweat-soaked Soul of “Don’t Cry,” to the tear-stained Honky Tonk lament of “One Heart’s Gonna Break,” to the sardonic classicism of “Kill Me.” The shuddery ache of “Too Dark In Your House” is shot through with bitterness and ennui. Meanwhile “Desdemona” is a Glam-tastic groover, fueled by rumbling bass lines, reverb-drenched guitar, sunshiny Fender Rhodes and a stutter-step rhythm.
Even as the Freewheelers came apart at the seams, Luther managed to retain his mordant sense of humor. It’s ever present on “Princess Washed The Dishes.” This summery song was inspired by a breathless news account of Princess Diana engaged in some light housekeeping.
A couple of tracks that were featured on his first bona fide solo record, “Lowdown World” pop up here. “Don’t Talk To Strangers” cloaks a cautionary tale in some splayed Bottleneck Blues. “Seven” is suitably sepulchral. The lyrics cryptically allude to a brush with death, noting “life ain’t for dying.” The rest of disc one spotlights the Stonesy swagger of “I’m A Stranger (#1),” the wistful but wiry introspection of “Back To Me” and “Friend Song.” This endearing paean to his first wife is a loping acoustic shuffle that shares some musical DNA with Harry Nilsson’s “Best Friend.”
Although disc two of Selective Memories opens with the corrosive crunch of Federale’s “Smoke Signals,” the second half of this collection is a strictly solo affair. The set is peppered with several eclectic instrumentals. “Fried Bananas” splits the difference between slinky Bachelor Pad sounds and Afro-Cuban Funk. The organ-heavy “Lonely Planet Song” feels like the perfect soundtrack for a Bi-Polar Roller Rink. Both “Kurt” and “The Sunnyland” blend honeyed acoustic arpeggios and shimmering synths. On the other end of the musical spectrum, “Keohen’s Theme” sounds like the best Blaxploitation song you’ve never heard.
Something of a musical shapeshifter, Luther offers up a smorgasbord of sounds and textures, mastering one style and then confidently moving on to the next. Jangly acoustic guitar and fluttery trumpet supercharge “Arthur Lee,” a trenchant tribute to the founder of one of L.A.’s best bands, Love. As Luther literally sings Arthur’s praises, he cannily references “Forever Changes,” (initially overlooked, this 1967 masterpiece is as substantial an album as the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper”). He also hints at Arthur’s brushes with the law noting “Arthur Lee’s not dead, he’s just doing time.”
There are a couple of pensive piano-driven ballads, “Tell Me If My Love Is Too Late” and “Empty Taxis.” The blithe “Bronwyn” paints a delicate portrait of a complicated woman. Although “So Sad” presents a troubling tale of self-medication, the lyrical lassitude is blunted by a buoyant melody and finger-picked acoustic arpeggios.
Several songs here are simply irresistible, (but not in a louche, Robert Palmer way). “Just Short Of Winning” offers a joyful explosion of handclap rhythms, double-tracked harmonies and rippling acoustic riffs. On “Everybody Falls,” sawing chamberlain connects with a propulsive beat, bedrock Bass and sparkly guitar. The lyrics capture a moment of clarity in the midst of a chaotic relationship. “I guess everybody falls in love,” Luther muses, before delivering this withering bon mot; “everybody falls in love…except for you.”
The album’s last few songs wear their ‘60s influences on their collectivesleeve. “Black Leather Coat” is a Baroquely bitter sad-sack Waltz. The Incandescent Power Pop of “Your One Big Lie” is followed by The Byrdsy chime and tambourine shake of “The Look In Your Eye.” Fab Four flavors accent “Everything You Do” and “Yer So Bad” is something of a Nilsson pastiche accentuated by rollicking piano scattershot drums and electric slide guitar.
If Sun Kil Moon ever collaborated with Nirvana, the result might sound something like “Motorbike.” Yearning verses are bookended by grungy choruses. The lyrics obliquely revisit the senseless tragedy of Ollie’s death. Here, Luther seems to addresses his 17 year old self; “The summer rain will wash away the pain, let it bleed as you leave.” The churning instrumental break mirrors the roiling emotions that accompany the stark realization that the only certainty in life is death.
Closing with “The Sound Of Rock & Roll,” from his forthcoming record, Luther offers a compelling glimpse into the future. He sketches out a vivid vignette; “Well, we’re back to the beginning, everybody’s laughing, joking, and she’s leaning on the lamp post, in a leather jacket smoking/Now it’s burned down to a stub, and It looks just like your soul, and she runs into the club, towards the sound Of Rock & Roll.” Plush acoustic guitars are supplanted by a crackling beat and boomerang bass. The song is simultaneously sad and soaring, charting a chance encounter and wrapping it in the restorative powers of Rock & Roll. An epic guitar solo crests over the break, ending on a wistful note.
Luther Russell may never be a household name, but that’s okay. His lack of notoriety has allowed him to follow his muse without the burden of outsized expectation. He’s distilled his myriad influences, coming up with a signature style that’s expansive and shambolic, erudite and concise. Selective Memories is a perfect introduction to a herculean talent. But it’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Discovering good music makes you ache in all the right ways. Luther Russell’s songs have that salubrious effect. Play it again, you think. Play it some more.