Tom Russell,
Modern Art
(Hightone, 2003)

In the early spring of 2003, prior to the release of Modern Art, I had the pleasure of hearing an advance copy of the title track played on folk icon Gene Shay's Philadelphia radio program. The song contained a bunch of neat Baby Boomer references, plus a clever chorus of "Two damn things that'll break your heart -- modern love and modern art." Having had a number of amusing personal experiences with modern art, this clever-sounding song had immediate appeal, so when Rambles offered up the album for review, I jumped at the chance.

First impressions unfortunately can be misleading, and I'm sorry to report that the songs on this disc are neither clever nor appealing. Tom Russell's vocals are good; his deep voice is occasionally reminiscent of Johnny Cash, Greg Brown or Bill Morrissey. The musicians and the production are also excellent; the only real problem is the songwriting, and not just on the eight songs that Russell either wrote or co-wrote. The cover songs have problems, too. Russell is known as an "Americana" folksinger; in fact, the biography on his website credits him with creating the "Americana" radio format, which I have yet to encounter, but if I ever do, I hope to find something better than the songs on Modern Art.

The Americana label is based on the biographical song content that Russell favors, usually dealing with historical or sports figures. One reviewer praised "The Kid from Spavinaw" as the greatest song ever written about Mickey Mantle; if that's true, I hope never to hear the others. This song quickly heads south with lyrics like "My name is Mickey Mantle and baseball is my game" set to music with no discernable melody. I never thought I'd use the word "banal" in a review, but in this case the term doesn't even begin to do justice to the lame songwriting.

With a bit more melody but no less disturbing lyrics, "Muhammed Ali" features a bouncy calypso arrangement as it tells Ali's life story. If the sing-song chorus of "Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee, my name is Muhammed Ali" doesn't bring you to cringe factor nine, lyrics like "No Viet Cong ever called me a nigger, no George Foreman ever called me a quitter" certainly will. In the category of biographical sports songs that include the line "My name is..." Russell is batting two for two. But wait, there's more. "Isaac Lewis" contains the amazing lyric "My name is Isaac Lewis and this has been my song." Give me junior high talent show songwriting for a hundred, Alex.

"American Hotel," written by Carl Brouse, imagines Stephen Foster on his death bed, drunk and penniless in the American Hotel, hallucinating the scenes from his songs, similar to Toulouse-Lautrec in Moulin Rouge. Stringing together all the Foster references is an interesting device, but sadly it's just one more example of weak songwriting, only slightly less annoying than the sports songs. After hearing this, you'll wish that he had just covered a Foster tune. I'd rather imagine Russell locked in a room in the American Hotel with nothing but the early Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan albums. I could, without breaking a sweat, name a hundred artists who write songs way better than these.

Even Nanci Griffith, who shares duet vocals with Russell on three tracks, can't salvage this mess. "The Ballad of Sally Rose" doesn't have much going on musically to recommend it and more painful lyrics. "Bus Station" features Griffith's vocal contribution on what may be the best track on the record, lyrically and musically, or maybe the least offensive. She also appears on the final track, "Gulf Coast Highway," which offers a decent lyric, but the boring melody is only slightly disguised by the mixture of their two voices.

The title track is highlighted by some nice fiddle work by Elan Fremerman, but the lyrics that initially piqued my curiosity become more and more precious with repeat listening. The growing up references are mundane and have nothing whatever to do with the chorus about modern love and modern art. Just when I was thinking that perhaps my reaction to this disc was overly harsh, I happened to see a performance by Livingston Taylor that brought a little perspective to the songwriting issue. Taylor performed a song called "December, 1903," which he wrote to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Wright Brothers' first flight. Here was a biographical, historical story song with a great melody and well written lyrics -- yes, folks, it can be done.

If you've ever attended a folk festival, you will likely have encountered a song circle where singers both accomplished and aspiring get together and each take turns doing a song. Everyone is usually treated respectfully, sometimes even reverentially, regardless of their ability or lack thereof. I fear that this sort of open-minded egalitarianism that is part of the folk music tradition can legitimize bad songwriting such as the songs on this disc. I'm almost tempted to enjoy the unintentional irony that Russell's poke at modern art is contained in an album that relates to "real music" in much the same way that some folks think modern art relates to "real art." Unfortunately, the most artistic thing about this Modern Art is the buffalo painting on the cover.

- Rambles
written by William Kates
published 3 April 2004

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