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Arthur Russell - The World of Arthur Russell

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Artist: Arthur Russell

Album: The World of Arthur Russell

Label: Soul Jazz

Review date: Feb. 19, 2004

It would seem important to extract something fundamental from NYC Disco. To somehow distill its utopian social wallpaper, to freeze it in time and carefully comb its information caches as if it were all simple binary data. This would make it more explainable. As is, you can have your attention drawn to any number of focal points. The embedded hedonism that pegs disco both as a crass, commercial entity and a bohemian world of fantasy play. The function and formal design of the music is an ornamented skeleton that denotes its quintessential urbanity. The aesthetics, though, infer some kind of heightened romanticism, a flawlessly dressed world of bisexual make-out sessions and oblivious dancing.

Perhaps one could spend a lifetime sorting out the actual experience of this culture, ranging from the full-bloom decadence to the occasional indulgence, and its abstracted, remaining cultural imprint. The VH1 Behind-The-Music on Studio 54, or Mike Myers as the movie Steve Rubell. If only we had the recordings of the conversations, if we knew what they ate, if anything, after they danced the night away. Whose pair of lips are on the Columbia disco singles? What are the names of the delis? The fabric industry that had the most pronounced economic benefit? The statistical layout of girlfriends and boyfriends, the general subject matter of conversation, who was inhibited by what and how severely?

It’s too late, though. There is only this music, an open, rolling form that saturates all physical space not designated by architectural limit. It is something palpable everywhere, an excessive sensual immersion: the doorways, the inner ear, in the narrow area between pant and legs. All over your face. Preserved by its wax entombment, but ultimately contextually destroyed. Here are the records we listen to at home alone. That Alicia Bridges 12” that you found at your local thrift store. This work may lack the socially definitive answers and clues, but ultimately it points to the city. It’s like the complete field recordings of Alan Lomax, minus the carefully compiled tomes on Folk and World music. Beautiful, moving work that sings of social interaction and lifestyle, but not quite enough clearly to explain it all on its own.

It can never be enough. More than music about a specific timeframe or place, disco was in fact, one of the defining characteristics of being there, an inseparable aspect of a lifestyle, of an active youth cultural movement, and as it largely coincided with punk rock, was one of the last musical entities that was fully manifest in that regard. (Unless of course you count the scattered arm-folded eminence of indie rock, a smug genre essentially based on regurgitating 60s and 70s musical nostalgia) It could be argued for all of the up-with-pop fanatics, the ones that are seemingly more vocal and noticeable in the most obscure musical niche audiences, producers like the Neptunes or Timbaland are so proliferated that there is no unique cultural audience, no specific cultural action, outside of their music.

Perhaps Soul Jazz’s recently issued compilation of Arthur Russell’s work will rectify this problem. Perhaps it will show the possibility of popular music artistry in a culture that, more or less, accepts and values it. There is nothing unessential in Russell’s work, nothing disposable. It is not merely idiosyncratic, it is a definitively vital piece of the beat-driven music puzzle. It is stunning work, deeply marked by Russell’s incomparably honest voice. Yet, despite the collaborative efforts of Francois Kevorkian, Larry Levan, and Walter Gibbons, this is not disco music. As Jess Harvell (whose “Secret Plunges” is probably one of, if not the best article written on Russell) quotes Russell in reference to his “Let’s Go Swimming” and “Schoolbell/Treehouse,” Russell hoped to make a “futuristic summer record.”

What can be derived from this description? Or the song titles themselves? Russell was aiming for something else, a personal set of symbols, removed from discotheque references and cultural ephemera. Russell’s music only partially points to New York City. His music is obliquely about the disco culture, it is a footnote, it is signified in his intricate array of metaphors and poeticism. It is music that conveys wholeheartedly the excitement and passion, the love and difficulty of actually being there, without ever stopping to explain where there is. From the first song, where Russell wants “see all his friends at once” and “wants to go bang!” to Melvina Woods sultry inquiry, “is it all over my face?” to the dark, but playful In The Cornbelt. This is surreal disco, removed from Russell’s strangely conflicting, part social/part introverted psyche. These songs are Russell’s little secrets meant for the world at large.

These are sprawling, mutating rhythms, track upon track of extra layer, of new timbre, of new melody. Like the frequently off-beat and curious subject matter, the music seems to exist in a world of complete blissful surprise, constantly redirecting the listener’s attention, as it pulls a new element from the silence. It is, by no coincidence, the ideal combination of curious hermetic symbol and polyphonic orgy that seemed to dictate Eno’s most lauded, yet now visibly pilfered, methodology with the Talking Heads. Yet, nowhere to be found on The World Of Arthur Russell is Dinosaur’s “Kiss Me Again”, featuring David Byrne. A seemingly glaring oversight considering how often talk is made of Russell’s near-member status of the Talking Heads.

In fact, this compilation often seems somehow ineffective at conveying Russell’s “world”. None of Russell’s much talked about, seldom heard avant-garde work is heard here and this is another seemingly a glaring omission. After all, as much is made of Russell’s minimalist tendencies as anything else, in his cannon. It’s an element used in all of the press releases to show what a ubiquitous man he was, something constantly played up for posthumous credibility, despite the fact that most people haven’t even heard the work. And considering the fact that Another Thought, of which three tracks appear on this compilation (though in all fairness, one is a particularly good extended mix), is still available (and highly recommended) and World of Echo is on its way, it seems like Soul Jazz would’ve done better to just limit their scope solely to the disco work, perhaps collecting several different mixes instead of representing each piece in one incarnation.

Most importantly, however, Russell’s work seamlessly makes the transition from social music to the private listening experience. This compilation is utterly necessary, if for no other reason than so the introvert underneath this music, that speaks in the quiet, late night listening sessions, can be heard for the first time. It is filled with wishful thinking. Russell’s world is not one so much of hedonism, but one of outright optimism, of trust and confidence in the listener.

By Matt Wellins

Other Reviews of Arthur Russell

The Sleeping Bag Sessions

Calling Out Of Context

World of Echo

First Thought Best Thought

Another Thought


Love is Overtaking Me

Read More

View all articles by Matt Wellins

Find out more about Soul Jazz

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