Arthur Russell is getting a lot of attention right now. There is this CD plus the recently released 'Calling Out of Context' on Audika. And there is the promise of many more Arthur Russell records, as hundreds of hours of unreleased tapes have been uncovered.
Arthur would have been a household name by now if he had joined Talking Heads as was originally planned. In fact, he plays on their 1988 LP 'Naked.'
He has released underground disco 12's as Loose Joints , Dinosaur, Indian Ocean , Dinosaur L , Lola , and pop with the Necessaries. He founded Sleeping Bag records as well.
It took me many listening's to see the big picture regarding Arthur. I didn't like the songs he sung on, particularly Keeping Up and A Little Lost (though I came to like them later) . His voice is plain - not particularly good and not particularly bad. It reminds me of when Burt Bacharach sings. Burt writes genius songs, but his songs shine brightest when sung by others. The recordings with Burt singing sound like they were made as demos to guide the people who eventually sing the final versions.
Keeping Up and A Little Lost are also the least disco sounding tracks on the disc. I had been waiting months for the release of this comp to hear the underground disco tracks Arthur made, and was surprised to hear these two tracks that sounded more Paul Simon than Paradise Garage. If fact, several of the other songs have a touch of the Graceland syndrome about them. The CD bonus track Indian Ocean Schoolbell/Treehouse in particular, though to be fair the track progresses into rhythms that are more Afrobeat than Graceland.
With time I came to realize that a better comparison (and one I can live with better!) is Arto Lindsay. Arthur Russell's non disco songs have a Brazilian feel about them, and might have been a blueprint for the sound Arto Lindsay has been writing in during the last decade.
The liner notes are written through the personal perspective of Chris Menist, and they communicate the fact that Arthur was a perfectionist that released so little because he was always making new versions of tracks instead of pushing finished tracks to get released. He frustrated people who wanted to release his records by creating tracks that confounded expectations, then constantly refining the track till the people releasing them felt that anything they released would be eclipsed by something he was working on for next month.
- Dinosaur L - Go Bang (Francois Kevorkian mix)
The track starts off with horns that sound like they are from a reggae track, but Go Bang is pure disco, with a mix by one of the finest of the era. The male and female vocals are crazy, the bongos are right up front, and there is a strange organ.
- Lola - Wax the Van
A different mix of this track appears on the Chicken Lips DJ Kicks CD. The vocals are by Lola Blank, the wife of the producer Bob Blank. Their 7 year old song Kenny also sings on the track.
- Loose Joints - Is It All Over My Face (Larry Levan mix)
One of my favorites on the disc. The very readable liner notes tell the story of how Arthur had the idea for the title of this song and couldn't get anyone interested. Glad he did, because it rules! It has and upbeat feel and guitars, all rock solid.
- Arthur Russell - Keeping Up
Almost soft pop, this male/female duet sounds out of place next to the other tracks, but that apparently WAS Arthur - he confounded expectations. You can hear a lot of his cello on this one.
- Arthur Russell - In the light of the miracle
13:21 - the longest song on the disc by a measure., and every second enjoyable. This is my favorite of the songs he sings.
- Arthur Russell - A Little Lost
Arthur's cello leads this track along with his voice, which reminds me of Gordon Lightfoot on this track. A Little Lost is a very romantic song. It has been running though my head a lot.
- Loose Joints - Pop Your Funk
This track was released as a one-sided 12inch right before this comp was released. Pop Your Funk started as an alternative take of Is It All Over My Face. Pop Your Funk could have the widest appeal of any song on the record. Choosing it as a single was an inspired choice by Soul Jazz. There is lots of treated cello on the track, sounding like crazy electric guitar.
- Arthur Russell - Lets Go Swimming
This song was originally released as a 12inch on Rough trade. Geoff Travis of rough Trade records writes about his initial and ultimate reactions to it in the liner notes. He tells how he was surprised that it was a dance track that you couldn't dance to, and how his initial disappointment turned to adoration as the song grew on him.
- Dinosaur L - In the Cornbelt (Larry Levan mix)
I believe the title to song honors his youth in Iowa. There are lots of bongos, some free jazz sounding horns, guitars in, out and around, and the insistent drum beat that disco-master Larry Levan seized upon in this mix.
- Arthur Russell - Treehouse
A short two minute piece that shows the more experimental side of Arthur Russell. His vocal has echo on it, giving it an Alan Vega (Suicide) feel.
- Indian Ocean - Schoolbell/Treehouse (Walter Gibbons mix)
A ten minute track that showcases Arthur's voice and the percussion that he used so well. Many passages of the track sound like Afrobeat songs, though it is rare to hear a cello on Afrobeat!
---Carl, February 24, 2004