Reviewed by Justin Avery
Poor Virginia is Brooke Russell and The Mean Reds’ sweet, somewhat romantic debut that hides the odd sting in its tail to pique the interest of those with a love for country/folk/jazz-inspired songs on sleepy weekend mornings. Featuring an impressive cast of accomplished musicians, the album bursts into sunlight with the upbeat, expansive ‘Fondly’, before taking a delicate turn into ‘Cotton’, a song so soft as to almost drift past one’s attention. Lyrics like ‘Trying to scratch away the nicotine stains on my hand’, though, pierce smartly through the fabric of the song’s surface, where delightful harmonies play among the gentle ramble of electric guitar.
Shifting genres but not tempo, ‘Trouble’ takes on a Tom Waits-esque dark blues, with swamp-water muddied guitar and a ripping trumpet refrain, the music here serving to guide Russell’s nearly too innocent voice through the mire of a man who dun ‘Poor Virginia’ wrong.
It’s in ‘Home Is Where He Is’, though, that we finally catch a glimpse of the good songwriter Brooke Russell is. It is here that the album truly begins. The lyric ‘Love was not for me/I resigned/It was only for the deserving’ reveals a confidence in the writing of something simple and deeply personal. This song, stripped of all accoutrements, carries us willingly along on the tender, close singing of Russell and trombonist Tilman Robinson. The gorgeous ‘Back To You’, painted in melancholy pedal steel tones, only reinforces Russell’s best ‘less is more’ approach to song, stumbling only on a slightly too big outro.
At their best, Brooke Russell and The Mean Reds bring to mind the velvet majesty of The Blackeyed Susans, and no more so than on ‘Sweet Heart’, which seems to be calling out for Rob Snarski to lend his own breathtaking voice in duet with Russell’s for this paean to a dream lover. Rippling gentle in its wake, ‘Lullaby’ too captures a classic piece of deep yearning.
These high points make the inclusion of a cover – Blondie’s ‘Dreaming’ – all the more perplexing. While pretty, it does little to the original and is an unnecessary distraction, lost as it is towards the end of this rather lengthy album.
The final song, ‘Silly Boy’, while perhaps succumbing to the obligatory big instrumental finale (one not at all suggested as necessary from the preceding songs), is a fine parting shot as Russell, her voice as strong as anywhere on the album, lets loose with ‘”So”, my love said, “take it slow”/Breaking up the words that my enquiring mind can throw…’
The delicate balance of showing and withholding – the ‘less is more’ of song – is what’s at stake on Poor Virginia and, for the most part, it succeeds. Trust in one’s own craft is essential and it is certain that Russell is keeping many more gems in her cabinet. Holding back a bit only gives us something to look forward to.