The Upshot: Gifted singer-songwriter looks back on an inspiring, if frequently under-the-radar, career that’s encompassed everything from ‘mats-style garage to rootsier anthemic rock to outright experimentalism.
BY FRED MILLS
Although he’s not quite a rock ‘n’ roll Zelig, Luther Russell has reared his head in enough disparate settings—from the Bootheels (with Jakob Dylan, no less) in the late ‘80s and the Freewheelers in the ‘90s, to myriad solo incarnations (that found him in the company of such talents as Marc Ford from the Black Crowes and Ethan Johns) and, most recently, guesting at the Wild Honey Orchestra tribute concert for Richie Furay & the Buffalo Springfield (our photo gallery is HERE)—to presume that his music industry Rolodex is pretty damn fat. The songwriter and multi-instrumentalist also finds time to team up with Big Star’s Jody Stephens as Those Pretty Wrongs, so he’s got pretty damn good taste, too.
Selective Memories is a sprawling two-disc trawl through Russell’s archives, some 41 songs in all, 25 of which are only now seeing the light of day. And it’s a fascinating journey, too. There’s a serious Replacements/Westerberg obsession demonstrated as vocalist/bassist for the Bootheels (“Interstate 68 Blues,” a classic lonely-on-the-road number) as well as a budding solo artist (“Thursday Girl,” an unreleased demo from 1989). Career-wise, he gets an early boost fronting the Freewheelers, a rootsier outfit with Stones leanings, whose self-titled debut was released in ’91 by DGC; “Little Miss Fortune,” from that debut, and several demos by the band, showcase a coulda-shoulda ensemble that wasn’t exactly in synch with the post-Nirvana nu-grunge mania of the era, although Russell could certainly turn on the vocal grit ‘n’ gravel, Cobain-style, when he wanted. And a spate of tracks from 1996’s Lowdown World (And Other Assorted Songs) reveal Russell to be a solid fuck-you-trendy-bastards kind of rocker, playing all the instruments (including, on the dark ode to a junkie friend “Seven,” tape loops) and generally experimenting with the studio’s possibilities.
Disc 2 presents an artist who’s gotten older and wiser (though, by his own admission, a total stoner), chronicling Russell from 1998 onward. Key tracks include “Smoke Signals,” a Crazy Horse-esque demo cut with Marc Ford; the frankly brilliant, anthemic “Arthur Lee,” written in 1999 and eventually appearing on 2002’s Have A Piece of American Pie, which should have done for Lee what the Replacements’ “Alex Chilton” did for you-know-who (the chorus “Arthur Lee’s not dead/ He’s only doing time” references the erstwhile Love leader’s then-incarceration); “Empty Taxis,” also from ’02, a svocal/piano slice of unabashed heartbreak; and 2012’s “The Sunnyland,” from the as-yet-unreleased “How I Won the West,” a luminous slice of (as he describes it) Bert Jansch and John Fahey that suggests a potentially fruitful side career in film soundtracks.
Intriguingly, things come full circle on the final track, “The Sound of Rock & Roll,” which apparently is slated for the forthcoming album Medium Cool. A lovely, garagey slice of jangle pop, it’s pure Westerberg, rich in melody and awash in lyrical yearning. Nice to know that the songwriter doesn’t forget the music that originally inspired him to start writing—and can still capture a little bit of that musical magic.
DOWNLOAD: “The Sound of Rock & Roll,” “Arthur Lee,” “Smoke Signals,” “Little Miss Fortune”