Graded on a Curve: Luther Russell,
Medium Cool

For those who stumbled onto Luther Russell’s Selective Memories: An Anthology back in 2017, the sweet news is that the album teased by that 2CD collection’s final track is hitting stores this week. Medium Cool offers power-pop with an edge, its ten songs hitting the sweet intersection of classicism (a whole lot of classicism), songwriting verve, and inspired delivery that’s fresh for 2019. For those who don’t know the man by name but dig Those Pretty Wrongs, he’s half of that outfit’s creative core with Big Star’s Jody Stephens; suffice it to say that folks appreciative of their collaboration will want to saunter up to Russell’s latest, which is available on vinyl, compact disc, and digital through Fluff & Gravy Records.

The abovementioned Selective Memories anthology did its job quite well, effectively introducing newcomers to a deep and decades-long musical trajectory, specifically Luther Russell’s contribution to ’90s group The Freewheelers and a big hunk of his solo work. It also included enough high-quality unheard material that listeners already hip to guy would likely rate its career retrospective aims as the opposite of superfluous.

Surely many of those fans were immediately chuffed by Selective Memories’ two unreleased cuts from Russell’s early band with Jakob Dylan (The Bootheels) and one by his later, short-lived outfit with Black Crowes guitarist Marc Ford (Federale), but it was just as swank how disc two wrapped with a new song that neither sunk into anticlimax nor downright stank up the joint.

‘Twas just the reverse, as “The Sound of Rock & Roll” found Russell getting back to something like his roots and with heavy emphasis on Big Star; in the right hands, that’s never a bad thing. To the contrary, it’s very good thing, a splendid thing even, and Russell’s hands are right as a late-afternoon rain shower in the midst of April.

Last November Fluff & Gravy put “The Sound of Rock & Roll” out on a 45, though I didn’t reconnect with it at the time. However, I did just catch up with the jangle potency of its B-side “Saturday’s Child,” a track from the sessions for Medium Cool that didn’t make the album cut, and its quality is far from negligible. Indeed, Russell fans who missed it upon initial release should seek it out, as copies are still available. The same is true for interested newbies.

But it’s the new LP that’s the subject of this review, and I first soaked it up through a casual spin. Everything was unwinding just fine, and then along came track three: “Hey, whose song is this?” I uttered. Well, it turned out to be “The Sound of Rock & Roll,” which I hadn’t heard for the better part of a year. In a world of pale imitations, Russell dishing out songs that might get you thinking they’re inspired cover tunes is no small achievement.

Although I didn’t think opener “Deep Feelings” was someone else’s song, it does have a characteristic reminiscent of a track from Michael Hurley, Unholy Modal Rounders, and Jeffrey Fredericks & the Clamtones’ masterpiece Have Moicy! I’m guessing that’s just a coincidence, and to these ears it’s a fucking cool one. Clearly deliberate is the hard-edged guitar tone; throughout Medium Cool it does nothing to interfere with the catchy thrust of Russell’s writing, instead lending the songs toughness. This is especially the case as second track “Can’t Be Sad” progresses toward its conclusion.

As said, the music here is intrinsically tied to the sound of power-pop’s glory days, but it’s often just as linked to ’70s melodic rock in general, or more to the point the realms of the classic rock sphere that wanted to get back to the pre-excess ’60s root. Through a combo of form and lyrical themes, “Corvette Summer” is probably the record’s apex in this regard.

What’s impressive is how Russell manages to avoid going overboard in tapping into the past. “Have You Heard” is neck deep in a blend of hooks and swagger reminding me of prime Modern Lovers crossed with Radio City (the inclination to look back emotionally with thoughts about rock ‘n’ roll intensifying this feeling), but it’s preceded by “At Your Feet,” an acoustic strummer that could easily please those favoring the less experimental side of Wilco, and it’s followed by “Sad Lady,” a groove rocker lending the power pop core touches of the Faces; there’s even some non-noxious cowbell thunking.

A danger with this sort of approach is a fallback onto lyrical clichés, but Russell has a lot to say throughout Medium Cool, with “Talking to Myself” nicely extending melodic-rock’s introspective tradition without getting all sad-boy or bitter in the process. Instrumentally, the root is The Byrds. “Blue Balloon” again brings Jeff Tweedy to mind, but as it unfurls there are hints of Rundgren in the land of AOR and eventually a bigger, albeit brief helping of Abbey Road.

You might be thinking all this is destined for a power-pop doozy of a conclusion, but Russell pulls a switcheroo and serves up a strummer as finale with “Can’t Turn Away,” and that’s alright. In fact, the whole of Medium Cool is more than alright; I can hardly wait for the weather to get nice enough that I can play this in the car with the volume up, the windows down and my foot firmly on the gas pedal.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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