Album review: "Mesabi"
Tom Russell's new album, "Mesabi," contains a haunting bonus track - Bob Dylan's "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall," performed by Russell, Lucinda Williams and Calexico. But it's almost anticlimatic, tacked onto an album that consistently reaffirms Russell's status as one of the best singer-songwriters of our time.
Just listen to him evoke Dylan's Minnesota roots and dreams on the album's title cut: "Some things never change / On the Mesabi mountain range / Where the wild north country rain screams / 'Please don't make me do the work my father did' / Bethlehem of the troubadour kid."
After that, Russell keeps bringing his vivid stories. On the border town lament "Goodnight, Juarez," he swiftly sums up the toll of violence and fear: "Our Lady of Seven Sorrows just caught the last bus out / She said: 'Seven sorrows used to fit the bill, but I'd need ten thousand now.' " On "Sterling Haden," an unvarnished portrait of the late actor, Russell toasts one of his many seriously flawed heroes.
Then there's "The Lonesome Death of Ukelele Ike." An homage to the late vaudevillian (and voice of Jiminy Cricket) Cliff Edwards, it's yet another Russell-cut gem, as tuneful as it is poignant.
--Mike Joyce, Sept. 23, 2011