Get it quick, and get it on tape: That’s what Luther Russell set out to do with his latest solo album, Medium Cool, which features sounds and themes the singer-guitarist first encountered decades ago while coming of age in California’s San Fernando Valley.
“These days, it’s hard to not instantly or accidentally shave the edges off [a studio recording],” Russell says. “It’s easy to buff it out without even trying.”
Medium Cool was not so quick making it to the marketplace, however. Its origins go back a few years to when Russell got together to jam with longtime friend and Eels drummer Derek Brown, who brought along a bassist. After the trio played together a few times, Russell found himself writing and gathering material that fit their collective sound.
“This was a rare case where I didn’t have the songs lying around,” says Russell. “They did come over a relatively short period of time. I had a feeling in mind for the kind of record I wanted to do, and then I’d know when I was writing something that felt like it was a part of it.”
In 2016, they decided to enter Electrosound in Los Angeles “to burn down what we were doing,” as Russell puts it, on the studio’s Ampex tape machine. Using such equipment would make it “very difficult to punch in” an overdub, he says, but that challenge fit his quick-to-tape, keep-it-real approach.
“I thought if you get guys good enough, we’d be able to lay it down [together],” he recalls.
When Brown’s bassist friend backed out the night before the first session, Russell called on old friend Jason Hiller, who runs Electrosound and in the 1990s was Russell’s bandmate in The Freewheelers. And even though Hiller came in cold with regard to performing the material, they tracked about half of what would become Medium Cool that first day and the rest the next day. Finishing touches were done in 2017, and as other projects came up — among them Russell’s two-disc Selective Memories: An Anthology, released in 2018 — Medium Cool remained in the can until its Feb. 22 release on Fluff & Gravy Records.
“I’ve always liked rock ’n’ roll that gets subverted,” says Russell, citing Alex Chilton, Big Star and The Replacements as favorite artists who’ve achieved that. “I tried to do that either sonically, lyrically or melodically [on Medium Cool].”
“Deep Feelings,” which opens Russell’s new album, in multiple ways echoes Big Star’s “O My Soul,” the first song on that band’s second album, 1974’s Radio City. Russell does not deny the similarities and admits a feeling of dread sharing Medium Cool with Big Star drummer-singer Jody Stephens, who happens to be Russell’s bandmate in Those Pretty Wrongs.
“I knew [‘Deep Feelings’] was great,” Russell says, “but at the same time, I knew it was in the same vicinity as [‘O My Soul’]. I don’t think it was ultra-intentional, other than that Radio City is an example of great straightforward pop being subverted at every turn.”
A few weeks prior to Medium Cool’s release, Those Pretty Wrongs dropped a new single via the Burger label. As for the follow-up to the band’s 2016 full-length debut, Russell says the album is in the mastering stage.
“It expands upon what it is that we do,” he says. “Everything came a little bit easier for me. I personally get a more melancholy vibe from the record.”
— By Chris M. Junior
Photo by Jim Newberry