New Quadraphonic Highway
First Appeared at The Music Box, July 2001, Volume 8, #7
Written by Michael Karpinski
At first glance, the name Russ Tolman would seem ill-suited to the rich, mythic milieu of the traveling balladeer. "Tax attorney," "gas-station mechanic," "tollbooth attendant" — now these are the sort of water-torture tedious vocations that "Russ Tolman" conjures and connotes. But just as some of life's most satisfying surprises come wrapped in plain paper packaging, some vagabond talents possess just enough charm, cheek, and chutzpah to transcend their monotonous monikers and chisel themselves a legitimate — if nondescript — niche in the collective pop conscious. Over the past decade-and-a-half, Russ Tolman has done just that, systematically establishing himself as the driest of deadpan drones in a hive shrieking with queens — an unassuming troubadour for whom style and substance have never been mutually exclusive.
Ever since his stint with the short-lived, left-coast collective True West ended in 1985, Tolman has been moseying from music scene to music scene (Los Angeles, San Francisco, France), casually hitching his wagon to a succession of little-known associates. On his seventh solo release New Quadraphonic Highway, fellow San Franciscans Map of Wyoming sidle by for a bit of recorded horseplay, helping to flesh out a record that has character to spare but is never perversely quirky. Thus, such "eccentric" instruments as banjo, accordion, and old analog synths serve as enhancements, not distractions — and songs that draw inspiration from radically disparate sources peacefully coexist without ever seeming piecemeal or grab-bag. Indeed, Tolman is equally at ease navigating the platinum paths of Nashville (Quadraphonic Highway's wagon-train gait and pedal-steel peal suggest a Glen Campbell/Jimmy Webb demo crossed with Harry Nilsson's Everybody's Talkin') as he is negotiating the golden roads of Motown (Respect & Consideration's funky wah-wah conjures Smokey Robinson jamming with the E Street Band). Elsewhere, Empty Bottle sounds like Vic Chesnutt heading a Mexican funeral procession; the Frampton-flattering Tolman Comes Alive features the peaceful, easy stylings of Glenn Frey-on-lead Eagles; and the simultaneously buoyant and beguiling That's Not the Way benefits from a generous helping of Flaming Lips whimsy — with Tolman's salsa-flavored, talk-sing references running the gamut from pop-obvious (Charlie's Angels) to cult-clique enigmatic (Bruce Dern movies; Dr. Who).
Now that he's fast approaching the skull-and-crossbones-foreboding signpost of 50, it would seem safe to assume that Russ Tolman long ago accepted the deafening echo of his own anonymity. But not for this resilient songslinger are the fickle, nickname-as-gimmick games played by the P Diddy's and J.Lo's of the sonic cosmos. After all — christened as he is with a name that so aptly embodies his laid-back, wacky-weed rambles through Paisley-Underground Americana — to change it solely for the sake of commercial cachet would be to engage in the most shallow and tragic of blasphemies.
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2001 The Music Box