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Luther Russell's Alternative History of the Indie Age

Selective Memories: An Anthology may outpace this indie rocker's official releases

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You're not alone if you've never heard of Luther Russell. But it's a mystery why that is. At one point, he seemed poised on the verge of notoriety for having helped launch Jakob Dylan's first group, along with another Wallflower-to-be. The Bootheels, named after some song Jake's dad wrote, played gigs and cut some demos around L.A. from 1987-88, then fizzled out. Undaunted, Russell forged ahead and cut his own demos, at times playing all the instruments. Throughout this period, he was perfecting his ragged-but-right playing, singing, and arranging. It's telling that that Bootheels formed in part out of a common love for the Replacements, for Russell's voice subtly evokes Paul Westerberg.

Eventually, Russell founded another band, the Freewheelers, who were first signed to Geffen (where the drummer worked in the mail room), then to Rick Rubin's American label. Eventually, Russell would launch a solo career which spanned two decades; most recently, he's appeared in cahoots with Big Star's Jody Stephens as Those Pretty Wrongs.

All of these phases except the last are represented well by a new double CD released today, Selective Memories: An Anthology (Hanky Panky, 2017). Perhaps the biggest surprise here is that most of these excellent tracks went unreleased, being largely demos. Ultimately, that makes the songs livelier than many a studio track cut in the 1990s or 2000s, lending them an off-the-cuff energy that suits Russell's voice well. 
The Freewheelers, ca. 1995 - JAY BLAKESBERG
  • Jay Blakesberg
  • The Freewheelers, ca. 1995

Meanwhile, the songs his voice carries are well-crafted —  not surprising, since Russell's grandfather was renowned lyricist Bob Russell, who penned the words to a handful of Duke Ellington tunes, not to mention the standard English version of Ary Barroso's "Brazil," and the Hollies' hit, "He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother." The art of song was strong in this one.

The anthology kicks off with a vigorous bang, featuring a pair of upbeat Bootheels demos that sparkle with anarchic yet supple guitar lines of future Wallflower Tobi Miller. Russell's soulful voice is in fine form, with the Westerberg influence at its most apparent. As with many of these tracks, it's the chaos that lends them much of their appeal. (You can hear a Bootheels track here).

What follows is a jumbled junk drawer of delights, but, aside from the odd acoustic demo, the various incarnations of Russell's work maintain authentic rock n roll chutzpah  mixed with a clarity one doesn't often hear in demos. These were clearly cut at studios; the upside is that they are nonetheless fairly minimalist, featuring a classic guitar, bass, drums, and occasional keyboard lineup, with the quality recordings mainly giving the performances their immediacy, rather than polishing them up too much. 

Of course, as the decades roll by into disc two, Russell stretches out stylistically and the playing gets tighter. I'm especially fond of a pair of lo-fi lounge-funk instrumentals, “Fried Bananas” and “Keohen's Theme,” that evoke Shuggie Otis. These are followed by an earnest tribute to the great Arthur Lee, the Memphis native who relocated to L.A. and fronted the band Love. The track itself sounds more like the Move channeling the Fab Four, but to these ears it's a good thing. Written while Lee was incarcerated, the chorus of “Arthur Lee's not dead/He's only doing time” has become both jarring and poignant since Lee's death in 2006. It's a fitting, if unwitting, elegy.

On the main, the tracks are perfect indie power pop, featuring minimalist rock and roll jangle and crunch, overlaid with hooks and harmonies. The lyrics are earnest yet oblique enough to bear repeated listening. It's an intriguing look back, a kind of alternate view of the past three decades through the prism of stripped-down, solid songwriting that's not trendy or prone to the suffocating overproduction that plagues so many bands' “official releases.” Demo power!

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