Heard Lately #22: Russ Tolman charms without overwhelming on Goodbye El Dorado

Haiku of contrition:

Low key is not dull. Tolman is a natural. With nothing to prove.

Artist: Russ Tolman
Album: Goodbye El Dorado
Release date: April 19, 2019

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The deal. I’m lucky to love my hometown of Queens, New York. I’ve read a fair amount of stuff written by people trying to escape where they’re from, and I just can’t relate. I can see the problems of Queens (not really — it’s perfect), but the benefits far outweigh the challenges for me (challenges? Or opportunities?). Consequently, I tend to identify with artists who love where they’re from, adopted homes or otherwise. Anecdotally, the hometown lovers seem to be people from the Los Angeles area (Red Hot Chili Peppers, Jane’s Addiction, Minutemen, and Charles Bukowski, for example). I’ve only been there once, so I don’t feel the pull of LA, but I respect the adoration. It’s part of what I liked about Russ Tolman’s Goodbye El Dorado, a country-influenced ode to Los Angeles.

Singer/guitarist/songwriter Tolman came out of LA’s psychadelic Paisley Underground scene, via the trippy rock band True West. He went solo in the 80s and has released music fairly consistently since then. Goodbye El Dorado is straight-forward, low-key country/folk, featuring Tolman’s laid-back singing. The vocals, while not powerful, are charmingly evocative. His is not the voice of a rock star, which allows you to easily imagine Tolman performing around fringe LA clubs, the local hero trying to break through to the next level, when in fact he’s an already well-established artist. The modesty and restraint of his performances, where it sometimes feel like he’s trying to avoid singing, or perhaps to avoid being heard singing, are enchanting.

My favorite track is “Satellite Bar,” a bouncy, piano-driven tune featuring gorgeous keyboard work from Robert Lloyd. The melody is infectious, almost like something the Muppets might come up with if they were human and more capable of introspection. “Almost Heaven” is a pretty waltz that’s also a compelling advertisement for California: “Throwing shadows on the ground / Southern California’s almost heaven to me / With perpetual fun in the summer sun / It’s the only place to be / It’s almost heaven to me.” The organ swells throughout the song, mimicking not just the waves of the Pacific Ocean, but also the spiritualness of a religious ceremony.

Straight talk. Goodybe El Dorado is relaxed. There’s no urgency or aggression. That calm, coupled with piano and accordion and less conventional rock instruments, can make some of the tracks feel slightly goofy. But the album’s prevailing characteristic is sincerity. Tolman conveys it with a natural performance style, rather than over-the-top vocal gymnastics. It takes a song or so to get used to it and then you’re hooked.

The confession. I wasn’t quite sure what to do with this album. I might have shopped a review around a bit without finding an outlet. Tolman considers himself an Americana artist, and his music is of that genre, but his voice feels like something else. There’s a bit of indie ambivalence. And that’s what makes the album so interesting. But also a little bit tough to categorize and write about.

Closing arguments. The performances are solid, as is the California-centricness of the album. With tracks like “405,” “California Winter,” and “Los Angeles,” you know you’re getting a work with a singular dedication to a region. Looked at as a whole, Goodbye El Dorado is a very chill fan letter from someone not trying to justify their affection, but rather so confident in it, that they don’t feel the need to belabor the point. Sort of like the people who bid $1 on The Price is Right.

The pile

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So much amazing music comes out all of the time. I review what I can as quickly as I can, working my physical and digital piles as efficiently as possible, but things fall between the cracks. Rather than giving up on things that are a little past their prime, contemporary-review-standards-wise, I’m going back for the overflow that deserves to be heard — even if it’s a little late.

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