The uncontested winner of 2004’s reissue lottery, dance practitioner Arthur Russell gained new critical karma as the subject of Soul Jazz Records’ impressive career overview, The World of Arthur Russell. Historically curious rock novices took first notice of the artist two years earlier on Soul Jazz’s seamless New York Noise compilation, where brass-funk oddity “Clean on Your Bean” held its own among standout tracks by designated players in the elusive “no wave” movement.
Though pop historians had not been exceedingly generous to Russell before the year past, he was a noted figure in New York’s endless late-night lineup for more than a decade preceding his death in 1992 of AIDS complications. He worked alongside academic institutions like Philip Glass and Allen Ginsburg, and his studio projects (Dinosaur L, Loose Joints, Indian Ocean) minted a series of dance-floor standards fit for the tables of celebrity deejay innovators Nicky Siano and Larry Levan. A defining moment for Russell may be Dinosaur’s seven-minute ’78 spinner, “Kiss Me Again,” a compact funk nugget accented by nervous skronks from then-fledgling guitarist David Byrne.
Before his brief time as a twelve-inch dance commodity and his recent rediscovery, Russell was a studied cellist specializing in Indian classical music, and Audika’s newly reissued World of Echo (originally released on Upside in 1986) is an impromptu meditation that barely resembles his more rhythmically inviting material. Where his disco anthems rode in on high hats, controlled diva cadences and blistering organ chords, World of Echo sees Russell play the part of peculiar singer/songwriter, cello acting as rhythm guitar to balance a muted delivery.
Audika’s limited-edition DVD further illustrates the intimacy of Russell’s process through two brief live runs recorded by American minimalist/videographer Phil Niblock. Niblock’s uneasy handheld hangs on Russell’s lips for minutes at a time while they repeat gently indiscernible melodies, and each line’s precise tone renders its lyrical content almost irrelevant. Russell’s cello works from beneath a heavy cloud of echo and distortion throughout the album, yet his fragile voice rises above the multiple fuzz pedals to give form to pensive string elegies “Being It” and “All-Boy-All-Girl.”
Russell projects such a stark emotional profile that he often seems to be performing his quiet symphony in a closet corner for an audience of one. He couldn’t know the details of his own tragedy at the time, but he sings as a man making a final dramatic statement. World of Echo is a long, solemn record, and it never attempts the exuberance of Russell’s earlier work, but his passionate craftsmanship and knowing voice color it very brightly.