Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Arthur Russell

This is Arthur Russell, the classically trained cellist, composer, songwriter and musician who made literally thousands of tracks (most unfinished) before he died prematurely in 1992 of AIDS at age 40. He worked tirelessly until his death, and almost equally as hard at remaining anonymous...so much so that few have heard of him. His music is across the board from soft, contemplative tracks with haunting vocals and oddball sounds, to danceable disco funk, for which his work is probably best known. This is a man who took as much from Philip Glass and David Byrne (who played on his debut) as from Fleetwood Mac and ABBA. If you were to listen to this without knowing a thing about it, you would be sure to imagine some bearded hipster in his Brooklyn basement with a backing band of merry pranksters. It's completely contemporary and completely fresh.

Thus, in the wake of records from Grizzly Bear, Phoenix, Animal Collective etc., Russell's albums will sound like something of a Rosetta Stone. If you're a DJ, then they are chock full of beats, sounds, and rhythms that you will be itching to put on a track (disco house has become de rigeur at DC's loft parties...). If you're a fan, the intensely danceable, funk heavy disco is completely enjoyable without being cliched or derivative. He took the essence of disco, distilled it, and made it anew into something far more sophisticated and substantial. The tracks are layered, the hooks are catchy without being sickly sweet, the musicianship is obvious, the progression through musical eras and ideas is effortless - it goes from Diana Ross to some serious psychedelia and beyond. The lyricism is subdued, but nuanced, and his voice has that Nick Drake quality of always sounding slightly muffled. The implications for modern bands are readily apparent - you can hear him all over today's acts. To say he was ahead of his time is frankly putting it modestly. He found little commercial success as he tended more to pursue ideas, sounds and concepts rather than finished works. He moved quickly, bringing the listener along with him, but tracks could easily go on for 20 minutes...not exactly radio friendly.

Russell has enjoyed something of a renaissance within the last decade (helped most recently by Chris Taylor of Grizzly Bear), and his music certainly merits a re-looking. Here are 3 albums, but there are surely more tracks than you might imagine.

Calling Out of Context

The World of Arthur Russell

The World of Echo


Raoul Duke said...

big up to arthur. respect.

EricMLeventhal said...

Outstanding post Bryn

Tinsel Town said...

Pretty excited to check this out. Thanks B...

Brandon said...

No idea how you caught wind of this dude Brynna, but glad you did. Crazy because its like nothing I've ever heard yet sounds like it's been bitten by so many people since. More of this please

Raoul Duke said...

yeah brynna where did you hear of this guy ;)

Anonymous said...