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Arthur Russell - Calling Out Of Context

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Artist: Arthur Russell

Album: Calling Out Of Context

Label: Audika

Review date: Feb. 19, 2004

The late Arthur Russell, whose music is now being reissued to the point of renaissance, wrote and played disco non-anthems, solo pieces for cello and voice, and tender pop in the late 70s through the 80s. He was a musician of eclectic training with a great ear for dance rhythms and heavy atonality.

Russell's best-received disco singles ("Is it All Over My Face?," "Go Bang") were rhythmically compliant enough to suit New York dancefloors, but pushed all kinds of limits otherwise. The cello was an unusual choice of instruments, especially when used percussively. The vocals he used ranged from free jazz, "Les Stances A Sophie"-era Art Ensemble of Chicago, to muppet. Under pseudonyms including Dinosaur L, Loose Joints, and Indian Ocean, Russell's records were an unlikely part of the passage between disco and house, contributing the fundamental material for the latter’s New York City strain.

Russell died of AIDS in 1992, and Calling Out of Context is a composite of two albums that he made in the years leading up to his death, one of which was slated for release by Rough Trade but eventually scrapped. The five year period (1985-1990) during which these songs were recorded saw Russell increasingly entrenched in frustrations related to his illness and the lack of a comfortable niche for his music. By then, even his mid-tempo pop songs were imbued with a swelling sadness. Never, though, with the least hint of bitterness. The lyrics on Calling Out of Context are nostalgic accounts of artless love sung by someone who liked being alive, and could say so without being mawkish.

Rhythmically, the songs are quite straightforward. By the mid-80s, Russell had discarded his ambition of making 13-minute disco epics in favor of occasional chord changes and quasi-pop structures, but he had not dispensed at all with clap-a-long beats. This was in keeping with the times, though Russell's mutations were not directly linked to any one genre. Fragmented samples made rhythmic hinted at house's evolution (Todd Terry in particular) and the present state of hip-hop, while certain sentimental qualities of his singing bore a beautiful, unheralded example of blue-eyed soul.

Sometimes with Russell it's hard to figure the line between sentimental expression and madness. Many of his lyrics are Beat poetic, difficult to look to for explication. Wistful, then creepy, then wistful again. And vague. But in the way he sings, mumbles, and toys with the contours of his words, there is constant expression, exemplified by the fact that he rarely repeats the same melodic line twice. It sounds like he was saddled with a lot of emotions, and none of them were dominant enough to give his songs a predictable mood, so he embraced the whole mad welter.

There are also moments of unexpectedly remarkable experimentation. Russell had a knack for augmenting grooves, which accounts for the appeal of his disco singles, and which made its way into his pop songs as well. His beats, which often include sound samples, are accented tightly and tastefully by the cello. (Which is itself transformed into everything from bass instrument to drum to sizzling electric synth.) These combinations of rhythmic elements, when examined, ought to sound awkward, but don't.

It's tempting to assume Russell's classical training taught him to use rhythm effectively, and perhaps there's some truth to that, but there is an intuitive sense to the pop songs and ballads of Calling Out of Context that mirrors his dance music and suggests an unorthodox ear rather than a great formal education. Whether in sentiment or in composition, what compels about this album is that it sounds like someone being utterly and painfully himself, at a time of personal tragedy continuing to create, strangely and without shame.

By Ben Tausig

Other Reviews of Arthur Russell

The Sleeping Bag Sessions

The World of Arthur Russell

World of Echo

First Thought Best Thought

Another Thought


Love is Overtaking Me

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View all articles by Ben Tausig

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