By Brady Smith
Whatever happened to the simplicity that folk music engenders in its performers and listeners? Growing bases of musicians are crossing genres. Paul Russell is one of these cross-genre artists, and in his newest album, Back at the Scene of Our Beautiful Crime, he deals with this challenge a bit awkwardly; blending Leonard Cohen’s somber and clear lyricism with tentatively changing vocals that ride over a vast composition of guitar, fiddle, mandolin and cello.
Standing out in stark contrast to the rest of the album is “Brer Rakha.” The Keller Williams-influenced tune turns the album on its head as bouncing percussion mates with meandering guitar riffs, giving birth to a vast dreamscape instrumental. Although the freshness is great, the song comes too early in the album, leaving listeners hungry for more with nothing similar to balance it out.
Many of the other songs seem to struggle with an uncomfortable balance of the classical and bluegrass influences, and Russell also manages to blend his lyrics. “Our Beautiful Crime” offers gentle metaphorical imagery and begs the listener to pay closer attention, while others – for example, in “You and I” – bring us back to the days of bad boy band hits.
Back at the Scene is how I would expect Leonard Cohen to sound if he strained his low calming voice and traded out the Buddhist monasteries for a few trips to Bonnaroo. A mixture that joins the beautiful with the new can be risky, and in this case it sends Russell into a vortex of cacophonously over-blended sounds.