Closing the Loop – The First Ever Russ Tolman Retrospective “Compass & Map”

Russ Tolman
Compass & Map
Lost Records

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Some loops get closed whether we intended them to be or not. Included on this decades-spanning retrospective is what had been, until last year’s “Vancouver Sun” single, Russ Tolman’s only musical statement of this century, the plaintive mid-tempo “Los Angeles” from 2013 that in its tone and tempo, in the plainspoken resignation of the lyrics, has every mark of an aching valediction to it, the singer-songwriter and True West founder letting go of a self-mythic ‘her’ – his muse, one guesses? – to the guardian clutches of the city from whence derived the central gist and drive of his career. The collection’s penultimate track – followed unsurprisingly by the languid sigh of “Dry Your Pretty Eyes” from ’94’s Sweet Spot LP – one can discernibly sense Tolman’s heart circling back on itself, reclaiming with a kind of stylistic zen all the many scattered threads and binding them back together where they belong. One also, it should be said, hears ample evidence of a talent that has lost none of its ability nor the stirring drive to make itself heard.

Freshly mastered to a bold naturalistic shine by Gary Hobish at A.Hammer Mastering, Compass & Map routes a loosely chronological but mostly flow-centered path through the arid psych-Americana jangle roots rock of Tolman’s seven solo albums since being kicked to the curb by his bandmates in True West. While he’s had a large cast of splendid friends helping him along the way – members of Dream Syndicate, Dumptruck, Green on Red, Giant Sand and not a few others – the crux of this record’s remit sets up Tolman as an artist and writer with a gift for the easy touch.

While every solo venture is represented, this first-ever Russ Tolman best-of focuses the bulk of its attention on the five albums from ’88 to ’98, the rougher-sounding debut Totem Poles & Glory Holes and 2000’s quirky semi-departure New Quadraphonic Highway (pedal steel meets analog synth squiggles that’s much better than that sounds) each earning only a single track. Inside those two career parenthesis lies a modestly immodest plethora of quality songwriting.

 

Whether pulling from the rawkier West Coast-centric sounds of 1990’s Goodbye Joe album – the dialed-back “Born to be Wild”ish churn of “Hollywood Holiday,” “Blame it on the Girl” with its ‘Fuck it’ opening salvo and Jon Klages’ blistering Neil Young freakout guitar break – Down in Earthquake Town‘s sparser intimacy – “Palm Tree Land” sports the windblown, melancholic elegance of Epic Soundtracks – the wry, slightly more polished-yet-somehow-less-adorned songcraft that marks out 1992’s Road Movie album – “Sleepin’ All Alone” is propelled by a JJ Cale groove as interpreted by, say, peak period Lemonheads – the blossoming-open pop of Sweet Spot – “I’m Alive,” aside from a harmonica cameo from John Wesley Harding benefits notably from the lively flights of Tom Penhale’s flute – or the ruminative City Lights that’s largely acoustic and plays like a mortality-pondering travelogue – check “Losers Club”‘s Tex-Mex yearn, the dead-of-(pitch black) night, slow piano waltz of “Salinas,” the Zevonesque confessional “Two Drinks From Genius,” Tolman’s voice having gained oaken tones like aged whisky – the single inarguable thing Compass & Maps makes clear is that ’88 to ’98 was indeed a particular fertile period for this guy, one of enviable growth, consistency, and verve.

Hearing this, here’s what I imagined: Being at a show circa 1990 that features Tolman’s primary band of cohorts at the time – Klages, Dave Drewry on drums, bassist David Provost and Robert Lloyd on keys – with, I’m thinking, Thin White Rope, Miracle Legion, and Provost’s other band, Steve Wynn’s Dream Syndicate, and finding myself looking around for other indicators (angels, wings, that sort of thing) that I’d died and gone to heaven. [Compass & Map available here]