Dusted Reviews

Arthur Russell - First Thought Best Thought

today features
reviews charts
labels writers
info donate

Search by Artist

Sign up here to receive weekly updates from Dusted

email address

Recent Reviews

Dusted Reviews

Artist: Arthur Russell

Album: First Thought Best Thought

Label: Audika

Review date: Apr. 4, 2006

The enigma that is Arthur Russell gets more confusing with every new installment. On the one hand, he was a devout avant-gardist, having pieces performed at the Kitchen, associating with the likes of Ali Akbar Kaan, Rhys Chatham, Philip Glass, Phill Niblock, and Alan Ginsberg; on the other, he was a devout discoist, hanging out at The Gallery, associating with the likes of Larry Levan, Nicky Siano, Francois K, Steve D’Aquisito and Walter Gibbons; and on a third, he was a near player in the punk/post-punk scene, living in the same building as Richard Hell, working on a few occasions with David Byrne, and nearly being a member of the Talking Heads. Throw in the experience of being a gay transplanted Iowan, and his sphynxian nature can be at least explained, though never understood. But before becoming a symbol (in retrospect) of the musical freedom of New York in the ’80s and its eventual destruction from AIDS and other external pressures, Arthur Russell was merely a budding figure in the downtown music world.

The music on First Thought Best Thought documents that phase of his development and represents a completely different side of Russell than shown on any of the other recent compilations of his work. The sounds here are only hinted at in the dense, joyous disco singles in The World of Arthur Russell, the barren strains of World of Echo, and the melancholy dance tunes of Calling Out of Context. Almost all of the pieces here were recorded in the mid-’70s, before Russell’s dancefloor epiphany, so they breathe differently from his later releases. They are entirely instrumentals, two bearing that word as their title, scored for fairly “normal” instruments (with a few exceptions). Gone are Russell’s trademark vocals, so simple and expressive that they at times seem naïve despite carrying immense emotional power. Those emotions are all still there, especially the profound sense of sadness evident underneath so many of his songs, but it seems that he hadn’t quite figured out how to fully harness them.

“Instrumentals 1974” is the centerpiece of this 2-disc set, a sprawling work originally envisioned as a 48-hour cycle to accompany the nature photos of Yuko Nonomura, one of his Buddhist mentors. At the time of the performances here, Russell was the artistic director of the Kitchen, and took great pride in trying to shake up the downtown art-music types by booking groups like the Modern Lovers and performing works like “Instrumentals.” The piece is designed to simulate the popular music of the day and incorporate some avant-garde tendencies, but to my ear it sounds like no pop music from this planet. “Instrumentals vol. 1,” recorded in 1975, is a kind of minimalist easy-listening music, a cross between “Blue” Gene Tyranny, Jimmy Smith, Stereolab and Steve Reich, based on vamps around single chords, with the (exceptional) cast of players improvising on top. It’s mostly cheery, and almost always driven by Dave Van Tiegham’s percussion. It’s a shame that many of the tracks here seem to stop short after only a minute, making it easy to see how this could have become a two-day long event.

The second version of “Instrumentals,” this one from 1978, dispenses with percussion, and, by extension, forward motion entirely. The group meanders through series of minor-key chord progressions in relentless unison, centered around long-time Russell collaborator Peter Zummo’s trombone. Russell felt like this still managed to express the same sentiment as the first, though perhaps that could really only come through in the context of the work as a combined whole. Similar in intent, though drastically different in realization, is “Tower of Meaning,” a piece that sounds almost like a lost Morton Feldman composition or a plainchant from the future. This composition gets the closest to expressing the Buddhism that Russell studied before moving to New York in 1974 through a series of consonant chords occasionally broken by a heavy dissonance. It’s almost like a slow-motion gamelan piece stripped of any elaboration. It suffers, though, from abrupt endings to most of its segments – the original tapes of all these pieces were lost, so the CD was mastered strait from vinyl, which I assume had the same problems.

Rounding out the set are two of Russell’s most experimental works, “Sketch for the Face of Helen” and “Reach One.” The former is a piece for various electronics and an ambient recording of a tugboat from some point in the early ’80s, similar to musique concrete while also betraying Russell’s penchant for melody. The latter is a bubbling piece for two Fender Rhodes pianos that rumble pointillistically through an empty world of atonal lines, delay pedals and dissonant chords.

First Thought Best Thought will most likely catch many Arthur Russell fans off-guard. An apt comparison would be Sonic Youth’s debut EP, in that it is uncompromisingly different from the songs we all know. There are elements of similarity, but they are only specters, brief presages of what was to come.

By Dan Ruccia

Other Reviews of Arthur Russell

The Sleeping Bag Sessions

The World of Arthur Russell

Calling Out Of Context

World of Echo

Another Thought


Love is Overtaking Me

Read More

View all articles by Dan Ruccia

Find out more about Audika

©2002-2011 Dusted Magazine. All Rights Reserved.