Arthur Russell: Love is Overtaking Me (Rough Trade)

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Arthur Russell: What It's Like
Arthur Russell: Love is Overtaking Me (Rough Trade)

Well over a decade ago I was introduced to a remarkable album on Point, the label started by minimalist/composer Philip Glass. It was Another Thought by Arthur Russell and its weird poetics, mix of cello and electronics, and just out-there but almost pop attractiveness made me want to hear a whole lot more from this New Yorker.

That wasn't going to be easy, he'd died of Aids-related illnesses in 92 -- but maybe not so difficult: he'd left behind literally hundreds of hours of music (from solo cello to vocal pieces and electronic-inspired work) on 800 tapes.

Russell was born in Oklahoma where he learned cello and started writing his own music, he studied at the Ali Akbar Khan school in California and performed with poet Allen Ginsberg, moved to New York in the mid 70s and fell in with Glass and Jon Gibson, released dance singles in the early 80s, performed solo using multiple effects, and his album World of Echo which was a meltdown of pop, classical music and dance was named by Melody Maker as one of the best albums of 86.

John Hammond -- yes, the same one who signed Billie Holiday, Bob Dylan and Springsteen -- was a big fan and produced some of his sessions.

Russell also wrote in the country idiom (you can take the boy out of Oklahoma . . .) and on this collection is a song he wrote for Randy Travis. And yet this is a man who sounds closer to Lou Reed (in speak-sing mode). 

A year ago Matt Wolf's film Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell (which screened in film festivals in New Zealand this year) brought him to wide attention again.

This collection of almost two dozen songs focuses on Russell's songwriting and in places he is like a more jaded post-junk Paul Simon, an heart-acher, an arthouse singer on the prairie . . .

He is a moving lyricist (titles here include Oh Fernanda Why, Nobody Wants a Lonely Heart, I Couldn't Say It To Your Face, This Time Dad You're Wrong, Don't Forget About Me . . .) but musically these songs (many of which sound like high class demos) move from Russell with cello to gently orchestrated pieces, songs with pedal steel . . . At times he also sounds like Daniel Johnston, at others Lou Reed, and mostly just his own man.

Russell was unique and his musical reach astonishingly broad. It is pulled tight here however and this album is something very, very special and unexpected. And nothing like that other album of my first encounter.

Much recommended. 


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