Graded on a Curve: Luther Russell,
Selective Memories:
An Anthology

Vocalist, multi-instrumentalist, band member, solo artist, and recently, half of Those Pretty Wrongs, Luther Russell is a songwriter in the classic melodic rock ‘n’ roll style, and Selective Memories: An Anthology is a deep inspection into a body of work more people should know about. But folks already hip to the guy need not worry, as scads of unreleased tracks will make the set’s acquisition totally worthwhile. And hey, if the Hanky Panky label’s 2CD isn’t your preferred format, there’s also a 100-copy double cassette edition currently available through those tireless tape hounds at Burger.

With 25 unearthed selections amid a total of 41 that chalk up a running time bypassing two and a half hours, Selective Memories is, if perhaps short of sprawling, then surely a thorough exercise in annotation. Coupled with a booklet offering Russell’s track-by-track commentary, it achieves the stature of musical memoir but without any hyperinflated sense of purpose.

Strict chronological career surveys are too often undercut by the predictability of the linear, but in this case the approach works; exactly why will be addressed further down. To be sure, the tactic aids the aura of autobiography and will inspire user-friendliness for newbies. In an additional liner text, veteran rock scribe Bud Scoppa helpfully breaks down the contents into seven categories, which also correspond with periods, and in so doing establishes a blueprint for synopsizing that’s hard to resist, even as it starts in unsurprising fashion, with recordings of a local band that’re long-belatedly seeing the light of day.

That Russell’s late-teenage endeavor The Bootheels also featured a young Jakob Dylan does add spice to the beginning of this tale; although their two tracks opening Selective Memories portray one of numerous bands smattered across late ‘80s USA who were smitten by The Replacements, the songs were already just a notch above the norm, and the four following solo demos document growing confidence, sharpening tunefulness, and obvious care in presentation (retroactively foreshadowing Russell’s background in production).

The catchiness of early gem “I’ll Keep Away” can get stuck in the head for days, and it’s somewhat surprising that Russell didn’t just keep plugging away in this mode. But one of Selective Memories strong points is in fleshing out how (unlike many high-quality songwriters) its protagonist works well with others. By extension, the man’s move into the spotlight (that ultimately wasn’t) came as part of The Freewheelers, who cut a disc for Geffen in ’91 and a follow-up for Rick Rubin’s American Recordings five years later.

Had some portion of the public been privy to Russell’s early stuff at the time, The Freewheelers would’ve been considered something of a shift; frequently cited as roots rock, that’s not wrong, but it is more than a little vague, as the term can denote anything from a bunch of sub-Allman urchins to flagrant chooglers a la later Lowell George to the legions of next next Springsteens.

Based on the band’s name, you’d be forgiven for thinking they were dishing out something comparable to Jakob’s pops, but no, their sound landed much nearer to a merger of The Faces and early Joe Cocker with a little Stones action thrown in; naturally, there was swagger in evidence, but it didn’t trample on the consistently strong musicianship and non-labored extension of the rock tradition. One album track each is offered along with five unreleased cuts, and it comes together nicely to outline what reads in Russell’s notes as a fertile but frustrating period.

If it all brings The Black Crowes to mind, you’re on the right track, as Russell ended up collaborating with Crowe Marc Ford in the band Federale along with bassist Jason Hiller from The Freewheelers and drummer Jimi Bott. Signed to Geffen, they were all set to record before a pesky label merger put the kibosh on those aims. What might’ve been is highlighted by Federale’s sole entry here, the cool “Smoke Signals,” but all this is flashing forward a bit, as that song opens disc two.

Disc one rounds out with six numbers that effectively essay Russell’s first solo album Lowdown World (And Other Assorted Songs). It wasn’t a sharp left turn, as the Nilsson-esque “Let the Music Bring a Smile” from The Freewheelers Waitin’ for George points toward the disc-closing demo “Friend Song.” Home recorded via four-track, the three selections from Lowdown World (the productively Springsteen-like “I’m a Stranger (#1)” is a highlight) blend with these unboxed recoveries without disruption and underscore Russell’s range.

And three tracks from Down at Kit’s, which delve into Farfisa-splashed jam-funk, considerably deepen the diversity. Russell mentions the influence of Willie Bobo, and yeah, even before reading that, the music had me thinking of something Grand Royal Records might’ve put out around the turn of the millennium. In real life, the album was issued by Cravedog, and it brought its maker some needed “mailbox money” prior to the release of his truly solo ’01 set Spare Change.

The two interestingly Chilton-ish numbers from that disc are preceded here by the catchy tribute-rocking of “Arthur Lee” (Russell’s not-shy about influence, which is refreshing) and followed by a nifty double dip into classic singer-songwriter territory (“Empty Taxis” recalls ’70s Lennon in the best way possible) to effectively enter Russell’s late-period.

Scoppa has further lines of demarcation, and yes, the crisp, full-bodied material from ’07’s Repair (“Everybody Falls” is another gem) contrasts with the instrumental soundtrack selection “Kurt” and the cassette project Sakes, but “The Sound of Rock & Roll” (from upcoming project Medium Cool), in wrapping up this chronology, sports a revealing turn of phrase: “Well we’re back to the beginning.” Indeed, it’s clear as day Russell hasn’t lost touch with the sound that got him into playing music in the first place.

In fact, the man’s consistency is startling; these 41 tracks could be shuffled, and the results would obviously be different, but the effect wouldn’t be that different. With Selective Memories: An Anthology, Luther Russell is the master of his own tale, and its telling is often exceptional.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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