The Upshot: Erstwhile True West guitarist serves up a 20-song career overview that demonstrates stellar songwriting, singing, and playing.
BY FRED MILLS
Russ Tolman is part of an ‘80s collective of musicians, deejays, journalists, and just plain dedicated fans that continues to thrive over three decades later. We were the so-called College Rock Generation, caught between the ’70s stoners and ‘90s alt-rockers, and we valued community over commerce—not that the occasional ‘mersh breakthrough by a band wasn’t cheered, it’s just that it wouldn’t be until the post-Nirvana gold rush that artists could genuinely claim to having the proverbial “career” that might allow them to work, thrive, and provide for their families. Luckily, most of us were young enough in the ‘80s to also value the fact that we were having a whale of a lot of fun, too, even if we still often struggled to pay the rent.
Tolman, with his early ‘80s band True West, was one of yours truly’s faves, alongside other heroes like the Dream Syndicate, Green On Red, Long Ryders, Three O’Clock, Rain Parade et al, aka The Paisley Underground. (How big a fave? A 1984 North Carolina gig the band had graciously allowed me to tape got turned into a European bootleg LP without my knowledge, so a number of years later Tolman and I put our heads together and decided to beat the boots by releasing it in its entirety as The Big Boot CD. Things do come full circle sometimes.) Upon going solo in 1985, he would release seven solo albums, commencing with 1986’s Totem Poles and Glory Holes, and along the way he would collaborate with numerous other alumni of the aforementioned Generation. With Compass & Map, Tolman takes a look back at that solo career to date, and the songs collected here are more than just impressive—according to liner notes by fellow alumnus Pat Thomas (Absolute Grey and archivist/label dude supreme), it heralds Tolman’s newfound urge to recommence touring and recording after a lengthy hiatus from the spotlight.
Highlights? Early Totem Poles track “Looking For an Angel” has that telltale Paisley Underground vibe, part punk, part Nuggets, part Velvet Underground, and it nicely demonstrates that Tolman’s initial reluctance to be the vocalist was misguided. “Blame It On the Girl,” from 1988’s Goodbye Joe, reaffirms same, additionally benefiting from a heady, catharsis-inducing guitar/keyboards arrangement. “Monterey” was a standout track on 1998’s City Lights, a jovial, upbeat shuffle featuring harmony vocals by Wendy Bird. And the relatively recent “Los Angeles,” released as a single in 2013, is strummy, twangy Americana as sweet—and, lyrically speaking, perfectly lovelorn—as it comes.
There’s a lot more here to bask in, 20 songs to be exact, and not a bum note among ‘em. If this is a way of reintroducing Tolman to the music-loving public, and also of introducing him to a new audience, then it more than handles the task. Welcome back, Russ. For me, it’s just gratifying to know that after all these years, one of my gang is still going strong and making terrific music. We’ve lost a few folks along the way (R.I.P. Scott Miller and Gil Ray, from Game Theory), and it’s more important now than ever to come together and celebrate those we still have. As I wrote in my liner notes to that True West bootleg-of-a-bootleg, “there was a communal, us-against-the-mainstream-world feeling” back then. In many ways, that feeling persists. So it all comes down to supporting the home team, y’know?
DOWNLOAD: “Blame It On the Girl,” “Los Angeles,” “Dry Your Pretty Eyes,” “The Best Is Yet To Come”