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Mesabi is the 26th recording from singer-songwriter Tom Russell. As on several of his previous albums, Russell here explores the lesser-known lives of people who had once been in the public eye. Musical styles and musicians vary on each track, taking their cues from the songs’ themes and the cultures of their protagonists.
The narrator of the title cut dreams of being the “troubadour kid,” inspired by the music of the Polish dance hall, Howlin’ Wolf, Buddy Holly, and others. “When Legends Die” is a wistful warning about the perils of becoming a legend. These two songs set the stage, exploring the dichotomy of the persona that lives on “forever” and the individual whose life continues to evolve after the period of fame comes to an end.
Child actor Bobby Driscoll, who played Jim Hawkins in the Disney film “Treasure Island” and voiced “Peter Pan,” died in obscurity at age 31 (“Farewell Never Never Land”). “The Lonesome Death of Ukulele Ike,” a soft-shoe number, tells a similar tale of the star who peaked as the voice of Jiminy Cricket. “Sterling Hayden” has elements of sea songs and strains of Hollywood cowboy movie soundtracks, reflecting the actor’s life on screen and off. “Furious Love (For Liz)” is a waltz set in El Paso, where Elizabeth Taylor lived with her first husband. “A Land Called ‘Way Out There’ ” tells of James Dean’s death. And “Roll the Credits, Johnny,” another wistful tale of our fantasies about characters from the silver screen, marks the end of the actors’ stories.
The theme shifts from Hollywood with the gospel song “Heart Within a Heart.” The remainder of the CD is rooted in the rich music found on either side of the US–Mexico border. “And God Created Border Towns” (co-written with Augie Meyers) and “Goodnight Juarez” (with mariachi band) describe the complexity and lament the violence of a border town. “Jai Alai” is a catchy homage to love and a dying sport, returning, again, to the theme of what happens after fame vanishes. “Love Abides” honors the immigrants and wraps up this album by reprising the final track on Russell’s seminal song cycle, The Man From God Knows Where (Hightone, 1999), which traces his own ancestors’ immigration. Bonus tracks, Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” (with Lucinda Williams and Calexico) and “The Road to Nowhere” provide a satisfying encore that reinforces the overarching theme if you listen carefully.
—Susan WagemanPRIDE OF NEW YORK, Pride of New York.
They call themselves The Pride of New York, and New York has a lot to be proud of. This is a “supergroup” featuring four players, all New York natives, who’ve appeared on many of the best and most popular recordings of American Irish music of the last quarter of a century. Joanie Madden plays the tin whistle and flute, Brian Conway the fiddle, Billy McComiskey the button accordion, and Brendan Dolan, piano. This is straight-ahead, traditional playing with only hints of the harmonic and rhythmic innovations of progressive Irish music. The musicians play in unison, typical of Irish music, but while some Irish bands strive to fuse the different instruments into one unified voice, here each player’s individual personality and each instrument’s particular color is allowed to shine through. We have the strength and clarity of Madden’s woodwinds; McComiskey’s accordion playing, solid and smooth, Conway’s voice-like fiddling with that hint of rusticity on the edges, and Dolan’s rock-steady, sparkling piano playing—all of them together, all of them distinct.
The playing is neither rushed nor laid-back. A relaxed momentum carries the music along. Yes, these tunes have places to go, but not so desperately that they can’t enjoy the view along the way. There is more ambling and skipping than charging ahead to be heard here.
Just as there are regional styles of Irish music to be found in Ireland, in Sligo and Donegal, etc., the group asserts that there’s a distinct New York style and that they are its latest heirs. Given that musicians from every part of Ireland have been playing together in New York since the latter part of the 19th century, it seems natural that the disparate regional styles would have melded.
If I have a quibble, it’s with the use of reverb on one or two tracks, particularly on Madden’s tin-whistle slow-air solo, “Slan Le Maigh.” Even before the marriage of tin whistle and reverb became a cliché, these slow airs were already imbued with enough romance, mystery, and melancholy to require no studio enhancement.
Yet that same track offers the album’s outstanding moment of surprise and revelation. Ordinarily I would advise against playing a slow air on a keyboard or fretted instrument. The liquid nature of the melody, the long held notes, the subtle bends, the seamless movement from note to note all call for the kind of sustain attainable only (or at least ideally) on wind or bowed instruments. Piano mechanics dictate that each note is a discrete entity, which is antithetical to the free and free-floating nature of the slow air. Chord accompaniment of slow airs on piano or guitar tends to break the melodies into little blocks, counter to the form. But Conway manages to avoid all of these pitfalls. He gives the tune lots of breathing room and even enhances its daintiness. Then he goes one better and takes a solo! What should have been a big mistake turns out to be both a burst of sunshine and a cool drink of water. Conway brings a degree of delicacy to the tune that even Madden’s whistle playing couldn’t. It put a warm glow in my stomach and a delighted smile on my face. As my daddy used to tell me, “Never say it can’t be done, because then you’ll hear Brian Conway do it.”
Don’t let me get out the door without a word about Joanie Madden’s smile. Can the woman possibly be enjoying life that much? Bless her if she is. And bless all of us.