Tom Russell – Folk Hotel

Album Review | Proper | Review by Marc Higgins | Stars: 4/5

Criminologist, Teacher in 70s civil war beset Nigeria, Taxi Driver, Songwriter, Musician, Artist and crucially, early architect of the genre we now call Americana, Tom Russell inhabits a musical world that he helped create.  From Russell’s own distinctive painting on the album cover, part bleak Edward Hopper urban landscape part neon colour Nudie Cohn suit, it is clear we are entering a personal space.  Russell’s voice is a rich well-worn instrument, its deep timbre giving his songs a gravitas and a reality.  Whether a Johnny Cash rumble or a low intimate whisper it holds your attention completely.  Folk Hotel gives Russell ample opportunity to delve back into his own ghosts and memories, “Up In The Hotel” weaves together stories of the infamous New York Chelsea Hotel where Dylan Thomas died in 1953 and Russell’s own wry recollections.  “Leaving El Paso”, a duet with Eliza Gilkyson, and “I’ll Never Leave These Horses”, evoke those cruel rural wastes and have the melacholic feel of Guthrie’s “Deportees”.  Tom Russell’s strummed guitar and voice evoke that strangely warming glow of sadness and regret.  These are songs about people who live by the choices they have made with a stoic resignation.  “The Sparrow Of Swansea”, again with Gilkyson’s second vocal, continues Russell’s interest in Dylan Thomas.  Ralph McTell might have a bit to say about the tune, but the imagery and word play are rich and engaging.  “All On A Belfast Morning” marries “High And Low” a poem by Irish Poet Playwright James Cousins with a stream of consciousness examination of a Belfast morning strangely reminiscent in places of Thomas’ Under Milk Wood or Joyce’s Ulysses.  Delivered in a morning after voice that is part Johnny Cash and part Van Morrison, Russell filters it all through a watery eye.  Again the lyrics are part anecdotal memory and part romantic imagery delivered with the burr of a drunk at a lock in sing song.  “Rise Again Handsome Johnny” is a sharp piece of quick fire Country Americana, marrying Russell’s own memories of JFK to a kind of Arthurian legend.  Perhaps in America’s hour of need handsome Johnny will rise and return like a modern “Once And Forever King”.  After the bleak imagery of earlier songs this is a fine slice of uplifting, feel good, songwriting.  On songs like “Rise Against Handsome Johnny”, “Harlan Clancy” and “The Last Time I Saw Hank” Tom Russell shows that he can take Irish romanticism, history and memories and produce music that is both all his own and  that owns Americana.  Harlan Clancy tells the compelling story of ordinary rural America through Harlan’s story, packed with imagery shot through with gritty realism.  The song feels like another facet to James McMurtry’s “We Can’t Make It Here Anymore”.  Elements of Southern Tex Mex on the album come from the accordion, elsewhere, like on “The Light Beyond The Coyote Fence” and album closer “Scars On His Ankles” atmospheric electric and acoustic guitars build beautifully dark atmosphere.  “The Dram House Down In Gutter Lane” and “The Day They Dredged The Liffey/The Banks Of The Montauk/ The Road To Santa Fe O” blends the intonation and lilt of an Irish traditional song with the dark imagery of frontier Americana and Irish touchstones blending both into a wonderful whole.  “The Rooftops Of Copenhagen” is a spoken blues, a classic road song with a Roger Miller or Townes Van Zandt warmth to the vocal.  A wonderfully rich lyric and performance where Tom Russell moves smoothly from first person personal anecdote to wry troubadour parable.  The duet with Joe Ely on Bob Dylan’s, doesn’t have the bite of Bob’s version, but the performance is wry and knowing with a gravitas.  Final track “Scars On His Ankles” is a mythologizing of a meeting with Lightnin Hopkins and reads like a chapter from a folk blues Mezz Mezzrow, evocative and hypnotic.  “History and legend bind us to the past”,  Russell rattles off like RL Burnside, he could be describing his own motivation and the process of looking back through his writing.  Folk Hotel feels like a place, like Cohen’s “Tower Of Song”, a space filled with the legends and history that fill the album, all rubbing shoulders larger than life and seething with energy and life.  Russell describes it as a kind of mind palace, a space inhabited by the folk and blues legends that he summons to inspire and inform his writing.  On Folk Hotel there are no surprises, no electric drums or heavy metal, but an album’s worth of Tom Russell stretching out in the world he knows so well and doing what he does best.  The writing and the performances are top notch and as familiar and rewarding as ancient cowboy boot moulded perfectly to your feet or a faded rain shaped hat.