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Luther Russell
Motorbike Ben Graham , April 21st, 2010 06:39

You may not have heard of Luther Russell, but he’s got plenty of history. Now 39, he signed to Geffen with his band The Freewheelers when barely out of his teens; their debut album had the misfortune to be released on the same day the label put out Nevermind. Growing up in the Californian artist’s colony of Carmel, hanging out with the children of sometime mayor Clint Eastwood, he’d formed his first band, The Bootheels, alongside one Jakob Dylan. If he remained undaunted by such celebrity scions, it was maybe because Luther’s own family history included the likes of grandfather Bob Russell, a legendary lyricist and songwriter who collaborated with Quincy Jones and Duke Ellington, and whose final composition was the Hollies’ weddings-and-wakes howlalong standard, ‘He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother.’

“Showbiz kids making movies of themselves,” you might mutter, but no, not really: since The Freewheelers split in the mid-90s, Russell’s been hard at work largely below the radar, re-locating to the wilds of the Pacific north-west and then shuttling back and forth between LA and Brooklyn, quietly releasing four solo albums and gaining a reputation as an independent record producer who’s worked with the likes of Richmond Fontaine, Sarabeth Tucek, Weezer side-project The Relationship and, most recently, rising Manchester band Folks. All of which should give you some idea of what to expect from this six-song EP: traditional, alt-country-informed songwriting, a hint of blues and folk (well, more than a hint, actually), Beatles-via-Big Star power pop, and a sense of wide open panoramic vistas outside, and an intimate melancholy inside, that seems somehow quintessentially the province of the sensitive, bearded American.

Lead track ‘Motorbike’ has a droning, psychedelic edge, as though drawn from the borderline between unfettered dreams and hungover reality. “Take a ride on your motorbike, do the thing you really like to do,” Russell’s ravaged voice drags the lines wearily across the wheels of modal guitar-picking, as though blinking hazily at the morning sunlight streaming in through the cigarette smoke and the coffee haze, and onto his unmade bed. ‘Dead Sun Blues’ is a finger-picking instrumental rumination, a simple exercise almost, out on the porch, considering the emerging day. ‘A World Unknown’ is slide-driven country blues, ticking every generic box while somehow sounding energetic and spontaneous enough to avoid egregious cliché-mining. Better, if no more original in the long run, is ragged rocker ‘Tomorrow’s Papers,’ channelling the recently-departed spirit of Alex Chilton to knot together the Anglo-mod superpop of The Kinks with the Midwestern bar band swagger of The Replacements. The brief but lovely instrumental ‘Et Al’ is followed by the straightforward, heartfelt ballad, ‘Somehow or Another,’ just Luther singing with his old acoustic and Sarabeth Tucek assisting on backing vocals. Clinging to the promise that all things must pass, this prayer for redemption and an end to pain is as Biblically bleak as it is beguiling, as though death and obscurity are our ultimate and only deliverance.

Yes, this EP relies on timeworn forms and structures that in lesser hands convey only laziness and limited imagination. But Russell’s world-weary, bar-worn vocals and loose, unconcerned expertise allow him to unlock the magic that the hacks and the ham-fisted plodders always miss. Plus, unlike so many introspective singer-songwriters, he always remembers to include a memorable melody. If at times he still seems to be searching for his own identity, then his own voice comes through clear in the EP’s overall concern with mortality; an awareness of the limited time available to us, and the necessity of using that time, if not necessarily wisely, then at least without allowing your own happy stupidity to be compromised by cowardice or the intentions of others. Even the major-chord guitar crunch of ‘Tomorrow’s Papers’ is filled with existential unease, and the fear of dying before achieving your artistic aims; the acceptable face of mid-life crisis. As a taster for Russell’s forthcoming full-length offering, it’s intriguing, to say the least. History may find a place for Luther Russell yet.