Monday, May 19, 2008

Arthur Russell

I've been hearing the breathless praise for the works of avant-garde cellist/composer/curator for The Kitchen/disco pioneer Arthur Russell in the past couple years, and in the NYT this weekend there was a bit about a tribute to him, citing his career as bridging minimalist composition and disco. Upon finally listening to his music, none of those references to his curious vitae convey how singularly odd and lovely his records are.

His life and work is lovingly captured in the documentary Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell, the trailer of which appears here.

His MySpace site has samples from across his career, but should your curiosity take you deeper:

Arthur Russell - World of Echo
This lovely record of vocal and cello songs might be similar to what Nick Drake might have made had he lived long enough to meet Vini Reilly from Durutti Column. The echo used here instead of being a mask makes the songs appear even more naked, his cello throb like heat off a summer sidewalk, little plucks and and plonks are birds alighting on that hot pavement pecking for scraps, while Russell's hushed voice comes on like an unexpected breeze across the urban pastoral, making you look up to the blue sky in gratitude. "Answer Me" almost sounds like its being played on snapped rubberbands, but is all the more poignant for it. "Being It" takes the tremolo of"Crimson & Clover" over the horizon in an balloon gone adrift. "She the Star" is the logical continuation of David Essex's "Rock On."

The real art triumph is "The Name of The Next Song," a perfect mix of poetry, Fluxus and pop music: he stops and announces the name of the next song is:[different name each time], then starts an increasingly feedback laden post Velvet Underground melody and breaks into a chant of California, here I come. All over a mock tabla beat made from plucks on the cello. Repeat ad infinitum. Completely absurd and heartbreakingly beautiful.

Right this second, World of Echo is the best album I've ever heard.

Arthur Russell - Springfield
This is from the disco side of Russell though after being lulled into hypnosis by World of Echo, the threads between the two are evident. I find the beats a little distracting here, wishing they were pushed far into the background, but its still a good listen. The three versions of the title track - original, remix and detail - demonstrate the mutative nature of contemporary dance music as Russell mines all the possible emotive content out of crooning Superman never been kissed throughout.

"See My Brother, He's Jumping Out (Let's Go Swimming No. 1)" and "You Did the Right Thing When You Put that Skylight In" are the real standouts, exhibiting the psychic exhaustion central to disco in his weird warm avant-garde rock. This latter would sound right playing in the nightclub in Blade Runner, should Ridley Scott be looking to re-cut it again.

Arthur Russell - Another Thought
This compilation of tracks (one of two, the other being the equally lovely Calling Out of Context) is culled from the avalanche of demos and tapes made before his death in 1992. These numbers are a little less processed than the previous and mile more intimate. His lyrics are practically conversational, lilting around his sweet melodies, e.g. the chorus to "A Little Lost"
I'm so busy thinking about kissing you
Now I want to do that
Without entertaining another thought

The sleepy hush of his voice, even less consciously present to that of Nick Drake, whose timbre it resembles, screams soundtrack. I've been doing some reading-heavy Internet research for the last hour while it played, which is something I usually cannot do with vocals playing.

Recent interest in Russell has caused into a being the EP Four Songs by Arthur Russell. Here is fellow soft voiced troubadour Jens Lekman performing "A Little Lost," the song he covered for the EP.

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