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Dancing with himself

By CHRISTOPHER GRAY  |  April 22, 2009


The party animal
It was Russell's disco efforts, rather than his solo work, that brought him the modicum of fame he achieved in his lifetime. Released under various monikers — Dinosaur, Dinosaur L, Indian Ocean, Loose Joints — and largely collected on 2004's The World of Arthur Russell (Soul Jazz), his production lacked the heavy drum beats and mechanical sheen of the genre's biggest hits. Instead, Russell used a mélange of effects and worldly influences — African hand drums, swirling keyboards, dynamic bass lines, and vocalists — to carve out a style that was eccentric and atmospheric but still infectious and ebullient.

However anomalous they were, Russell's liquid disco songs captured the communal spirit of the subculture. They're playfully sexual (with titles like "Go Bang!" and "Is It All Over My Face?") and insistently danceable, rife with scatted, nonsense vocals and giddy throwaway lines like "I wanna see all my friends at once" that highlight the music's inherent inclusiveness. You can hear a lot of this insouciant spirit (and a similar abundance of cowbell) in the early-'00s insurgence of dancepunk (!!!, the Rapture), but perhaps most directly in last year's effervescent self-titled album by Hercules & Love Affair (DFA). (DFA producers provided a remix on one Russell reissue.)

The lonesome naif
While his dance songs aren't impersonal, they're almost defiantly utopian, the expressions of a vision rather than an artist. After you've heard Russell's disco, his solo endeavors initially seem hauntingly lonely. Few had heard his cello work until the 2004 reissue of his masterpiece of late-career works, World of Echo (Audika). It's a landscape of cold pizzicato, amplified creaking, bristly percussion, and mournful chords, all coming from Russell's cello in tones meditative and unsettled. Songs are fragmented, or a handful of ideas stitched together. His voice, ranging from a bassy whisper to a high, Muppet-like croon, diffuses across channels like the imprint of a raindrop in a puddle.

Russell's lyrics are often difficult to understand — many of these reissues feature multiple versions of the same song, and it's apparent that Russell never sang a line the same way twice — but they're defined by a wide-eyed, childlike ambiguity. "Lucky Cloud" repeats variations on "Lucky cloud in your sky/A little rain/A lot of fun." "Hiding Your Presents From You" looks "Where you see where it is/But don't know where it is."

These lines suggest a hint of glee in the formlessness of most of Russell's cello music, and that's probably the sensibility that makes World of Echo (and Another Thought, a 2006 reissue on Orange Mountain) so transcendently gorgeous. Russell's lilting timbre feels unusually spontaneous and spiritual, as though he's singing what's in his heart before he's allowed his mind to process it.

The lovestruck strummer
Probably the final revelation of Russell's back catalog, released last year on Audika, is Love is Overtaking Me, a set mostly comprised of his folk songs, which he rarely performed in public. While they usually follow more traditional, verse-chorus structures, the music magnifies the ephemeral nature of Russell's better-known work. The emotions are plainspoken, capturing small moments of beauty, love, and whimsy with flashes of magical imagery ("Don't you hear the stars? They glisten/As we go in and out") and great sensitivity ("Eli" is a brief, urgent love song to an unwanted dog).

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