By Eleni P. Austin
If you aren’t familiar with Russ Tolman, then you have been missing out. The native (Northern) Californian has an intriguing pedigree: his dad was a sheep rancher, his mom a former burlesque queen who performed as “Rosie The Riveter.” His grandad was noted psychologist Edward C. Tolman and his great uncle was Manhattan Project physicist Richard C. Tolman.
Russ became obsessed with guitars at an early age. After a couple of false starts, he began playing in earnest during his teens, once he realized “the only way I was ever going to meet a girl who would have sex with me was if I knew how to play guitar.” He even played in a Polka band for a while. Once he enrolled at UC Davis he forged a friendship with Steve Wynn and Kendra Smith and they formed Davis’ very first New Wave band, Suspects in 1978. Eventually, Steve and Kendra returned to Los Angeles to attend Grad School at UCLA. Russ quickly joined forces with Sean O’Brien and Rick Gates (son of Bread frontman, David Gates and became The Meantime. He also began DJ’ing at a progressive Country radio station, and acquired a new appreciation for classic Honky-Tonk, Western Swing and Folk.
By 1982, with the addition of vocalist Gavin Blair, The Meantime became True West. Over the next three years, they released two critically acclaimed albums, and served as opening act for R.E.M.’s Fables Of The Reconstruction tour. When the band amicably parted ways in 1985, Russ embarked on a solo career.
His debut, Totem Poles And Glory Holes topped several critics’ polls. He spent the next decade in Los Angeles, which is where he wrote and recorded Down In Earthquake Town, Goodbye Joe, Road Movie and Sweet Spot. Relocating to San Francisco, he garnered rave reviews for City Lights and New Quadrophonic Highway. For the next several years, he concentrated on producing other musicians, as well as starting his own label, Interstate Records, with musician and music journalist Pat Thomas.
There was a brief True West reunion and tour in 2006, but by 2011, Russ and his wife, Kim were living in Los Angeles. 2017 saw the release of a solo career-spanning 20-song set, Compass & Map. Now he has returned with his newest long-player, Goodbye El Dorado. The album kicks into gear with five vivid vignettes, each song is tenuously tied together through geographic coincidence. “Los Angeles” is a loping Ranchera. Spitfire guitar, shimmering accordion, fluttery horns and rock-ribbed bass are tethered to a cantering beat. Russ’ lanky tenor wraps around a tale of love and loss; “I come home, got her note, ‘Adios Amigo’ is all she wrote, no explanation, consolation prize, just a big empty house and a sad surprise.” Sympathetic backing vocals shadow the chorus which effortlessly rhymes “please” after “Los Angeleez.” Rippling castanets are quickly supplanted on the break by synchronized horns, a feathery guitar solo and swoony accordion.
Cloaked in a buoyant melody and cheerful arrangement, “Kid” is accented by cascading guitar riffs, slipstitch bass and a rattle-trap beat. All of that belies the scruffy saga of a latch-key kid, navigating adolescent angst, a drunken stepfather’s bad intentions and a blended family that is the antithesis of The Brady Bunch; “Just another California kid with an attitude, her family’s come quite unglued, every night’s a bona fide horror show, but she’s got no place else to go/She just wants to stay out with her friends and drive the town, and mom doesn’t notice she’s not around.” Filigreed guitar licks flicker across the margins of the melody, intertwined with piquant mandolin runs as the song winds down to a close.
Russ’ vocals verge on conversational for “North Hollywood Dream.” Percolating keys connect with strummy guitars and brushed percussion. A richly detailed (and geographically specific) narrative centers on a young kid with stars in his eyes; “You’re fresh off the bus, here in North Hollywood, you walk down Magnolia to Lankershim, things are much busier than they were back in Idaho, you wonder how much farther to the Econo Inn, you’re finally in L.A., let the dreaming begin.” But as John Lennon once wryly noted, “life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans.” As willowy trumpet is matched by reverb-y guitar on the break, the kid has settled into a life of domesticity; “You’ve found yourself a partner, and now you’ve a couple kids, buying’s better than renting, now it’s time to find new digs. You’re finally in L.A., let the dreaming begin, but now you’ve got mouths to feed, and there’s too much to take in.”
Meanwhile, “405” is powered by twinkly, (toy) piano notes, sun-dappled guitars, tensile bass and a tick-tock beat. A good-natured rant about one of the busiest freeway arteries in L.A. Being trapped on it can try the patience of even the most patient driver; “From Brentwood up to old Van Nuys, everything is crawling, only minutes seem to fly, wish there was another way, I should’ve left yesterday, four-oh-five, you’re really going to piss me off, four-oh-five, I’m stuck and I can’t get off.” Burnished guitars and sleek keys search for equanimity, but by the final verse, he’s ready to get the fuck out, leaving the snarled traffic in the rearview; “Maybe it’s time to leave L.A., pack up and move away, so, so long, L.A.”
This loose-limbed song suite wraps up with the title-track. Walking bass lines, brawny guitars and wistful accordion notes are wed to a spry shuffle-rhythm. Wry and philosophical lyrics weigh pros and cons of life in La-La-Land before reaching an epiphany of sorts; “Goodbye El Dorado, my time here is done, you’ve been a good companion, and I’ve been a dutiful son, I’ve learned your lessons and the teaching time is done, pack up and move on toward the rising sun.” Mariachi-tinged horns envelope wistful accordion and lonesome guitar on the break, creating a bittersweet tableau. Russ eschews sentiment, drily noting;” “Thank you, it was almost fun.”
Although this album is, as the kids say, all killer and no filler, two tracks stand out from the pack, “California Winter” and “Do You Like The Way.” The former lands somewhere between a Morricone-d Spaghetti Western and a sandblasted Bossa Nova. The arrangement is anchored by gauzy guitars, swirly horns, shivery keys and a bactucada beat. Lyrics offer a barbed ode to new desolate surroundings and rekindled love; “In the California winter I lost my way ahead, in the California winter my ego was left for dead, discovering you helped me feel reborn, but all there’s now is scorn, ‘til my live is sworn, it can’t be torn.” The action slows slightly on the instrumental coda, as a rumbly guitar refrain coils around plunky piano, slinky organ and painterly trumpet.
The latter revisits the spikey New Wave sound he pioneered during his Suspects days. Plangent piano is front and center, somersaulting atop angular guitars, flinty bass and a hiccupping beat. Russ’ deadpan vocals put the perfect spin on lyrics that take an practiced narcissist to task; “There’s a lot of love in this room tonight and you’re working on a heck of a buzz, adjust your crown, swagger around, making the rounds, everybody bow down to the king of the barroom clowns/ Do you like the way you look in the song, stop me if I’m wrong or I’m lying, you’ve got some innovative thoughts and I’m sure it’s fun to think them, you’re a free spirit or at least you like to drink them, you play the role of the loveable loser, it’s performance, world class, but a guy with as much talent as you doesn’t need to play the stupid ass.” A fluttery guitar solo partners with sparkly piano on the break, taking some of the sting out of this caustic critique.
Other interesting tracks include the prickly waltz of “Almost Heaven.” Russ manages to transform Ted Savarese’s “Henrietta” into the scrappy “Yuba City.” The album closes with “Take It Easy, Take It Slow,” a mordant meditation on mortality. Chiming guitars blend with celestial keys, brittle bass, keening pedal steel and a knockabout beat. Admitting, “I’m in no hurry to go.” Russ briefly gets biblical; “Old Methuselah really had it down, that man knew how to hang around, 969 sounds awful fine, let’s hope old Methus didn’t get bored/And if you ever find the time to put it together here with mine, come rain or come shine, together we’ll be fine, looking forward to seeing the continental drift, and an ice age or two, I’m sure you just bundle up, you just bundle up, and it’ll be easy to get through.” It’s a playful end to a lovely record.
(If you get the LP, do yourself a favor and pick up the CD as well, as it adds three bonus tracks. They include the twangy travelogue of “Pacific Rain,” the chugging “Satellite Bar,” which pays tribute to the classic Plymouth automobile, and last but not least, there’s the Byrdsy Jangle-Pop of “Time Flies”).
This is a solo album in name only. While Russ provided vocals and acoustic guitar, he was ably assisted by Kirk Swan on guitars and backing vocals, Robert Lloyd on organ, piano, accordion and mandolin. Bassist Dave Provost and drummer Kevin Jarvis held down the bottom. Slim Zwerling added trumpet, flugelhorn and Tom Heyman played pedal steel. Backing vocals were supplied by Cindy Wasserman and Dan Janisch.
Goodbye El Dorado is a potent mix of tender-hearted melodies and trenchant lyrics. The perfect musical gateway drug to get hooked on Russ Toman.
(Ben Vaughan, Russ Tolman w The Damn Luckys and Dan Janish will play at FURSTWURLD GALLERY/PERFORMING ARTS, in Joshua Tree on Saturday, February 11… https://eventbrite.com/e/473105761067)