I first saw Sam Russo's name on the internet as an opener for one Mr. Frank Turner back in 2009. Since I had not long before developed a lasting appreciation for Frank's take on punk and folk, I decided to look up Sam and see what kind of things he was doing. I found his Myspace page (remember, 2009), and saw that he had five or six demos available to listen to. I clicked play and was frozen for the next two hours as I played those five demos over and over again. I kept an eye on Sam, and hungrily snapped up the demos and EPs he gave away for the next few years. He'd fade in and out of my mind, and every now and again, I'd see that he'd started a new website, or that he'd joined twitter, or released a few tracks on a split with Chuck Ragan. But above all, I kept playing those wonderful, scratchy, magical demo songs. It seemed a miracle that even though I lived probably three thousand miles away from Sam, I was able to access his music and know what he was up to.
Now it's late 2012, and Sam's name is becoming more visible. Red Scare Industries took an interest, and now Sam has released his first LP, entitled Storm. It's just about exactly what I'd been waiting for ever since I pressed play on that Myspace back three years ago. On paper, his songs might not sound all that notable. They're mostly just an acoustic guitar and Sam's voice, with a few flourishes of extra guitar here and there. The songs exist somewhere between folk and punk, with the usual I-IV-V chord structures, and the lyrics are about his own personal victories and losses, and living hard in modern Britain. I realize that by that description alone, he'd get lost in a jumble of other white guys with guitars, dreaming of being invited to join the Revival Tour, but it's the specific alchemy of these words sung this way with these chords that makes all the difference.
Part of what makes Sam's work so outstanding is, paradoxically, his realness. It's very easy to imagine that Sam is that buddy of yours who stops by and plays a song in your kitchen (as he does in a few Youtube videos), but instead of some embarrassing A-minor shamble, it's a perfect, fully realized folk song that puts a tear in everyone's eye. Sam's caramel-and-gravel voice is the perfect vehicle for his sad, sweet words (not to mention his particular accent...it's worth the price of admission just to hear him sing a word with a long 'O' sound), and he knows when the guitar needs to whisper and when it needs a little punk snarl in the strumming. His choice of words is impeccable, getting right to the heart of the topics he chooses. I mean, I enjoy Springsteen as much as the next guy, but it's been many a year since Bruce was capable of delivering a song about an embittered working man that was as real and true and heartbreaking as Sam's "Factory Rain." The weight of experience rests heavily in these songs, and you can feel it when he sings something like, "All hope was never lost, only abandoned/And every bridge you burn down leaves a stanchion."
Look, a stupid review isn't going to do the subtle charms of Sam's music justice, but I can say that I think this is one of the strongest releases I've heard all year, and I can't stop listening to it. You have to actually listen to his songs to understand why they're way beyond the average acoustic folky punk numbers, so do yourself a favor and give Sam a listen; about half of Storm is streaming here.