Tuesday, October 28, 2008

A Habit That's Hard To Give Up

Arthur Russell - Love Is Overtaking Me (Audika/Rough Trade, 2008)

It’s natural to feel a little suspicious of the burgeoning estates of dead musicians. There’s the endless ‘discovery’ of previously unheard raps from Tupac or Notorious BIG, the patching together of Miles Davis outtakes, or even worse, the grafting on to new music of poorly recorded vocal demos. All seem to suggest that a record label or family member is interested in making a quick and easy buck. Let’s not forget that the reissue industry is such huge business because it offers the largest possible profit margins. Reissuing old albums costs little and when they sell, reaps huge rewards for all involved.

The case of Charles Arthur Russell Jr. seems slightly different however. Matt Wolf’s excellent documentary ‘Wild Combination’ neatly encapsulated the wide-reaching extent of Russell’s creative imagination. It also left a lingering sadness that so little of Russell’s meticulously crafted music was appreciated during his own lifetime. The devotion of Russell’s partner Tom Lee seemed transparent and sincere, and one can hardly resent him now delving through Russell’s voluminous collection of recorded tapes to produce another compilation for the Audika label, a business currently existing, it would appear, solely to communicate Russell’s artistic legacy. The discovery of these tapes also seemed to be a voyage of discovery for Russell’s parents, who maintained a caring but somewhat distant relationship with their son.

We already know that Russell had little or no respect for boundaries. He composed minimalist music influenced by the avant-garde, endured a failed stage collaboration with Robert Wilson (both artists no doubt a bit too individualistic and stubborn to work well together), produced energising disco tracks and, most intriguingly of all, wrote peculiar, unpredictable songs in which he experimented with the soft sound of his voice and an electronically treated ‘Cello. What many people may not have realised until now is that Russell also invested a lot of time in writing relatively conventional pop songs, many of which are presented here for the first time.

Some of the songs are rooted in the American folk tradition and hint back at his rural upbringing. These songs help emphasise one of the surprising and insightful themes of Wolf’s documentary – the conflict between the pull of the reckless, liberated cities and the peace and space of rural America. Where once Russell had made a clear and deliberate rejection of the latter, his relationship with the world in which he grew up had clearly became more complex as he grew older.

There’s another dichotomy bared here too. Whilst Russell was an original, intelligent writer drawn to experimentation, he also loved straightforward populism too. Frequently, ‘Love Is Overtaking Me’ emphasises Russell’s commitment to bubblegum over his commitment to art. The genuinely remarkable thing about this set is that this by no means diminishes the quality of the material – it seems that Russell could confidently inhabit any world to which he turned his mercurial gaze.

The greater emphasis on Russell’s voice, mostly untreated and undisguised here, acts as a timely reminder of one of my most deeply held convictions about the performance of songs. This is that no amount of false emoting or bellowing force can compensate for a real and natural vocal character. The X-Factor school of vocalising does nothing for me whatsoever. By most conventional musical criteria, Russell probably wasn’t a great singer. His voice is delicate and vulnerable, and frequently wavers away from the intended notes, but there’s something beautiful, intimate and human within it – something that manages to elevate his sometimes intentionally mundane lyrics towards the realms of profundity. Russell frequently wrote about everyday themes – the repetitive, less intense elements of love that he clearly found as significant as wild attraction, his dog, an unopened letter. The songs resonate with curiosity, honesty and feeling.

It’s difficult to pin down exactly what it is in this music that produces this overwhelming poignancy. ‘Don’t Forget About Me’, with its reverb-soaked backing and twangy guitar perhaps most resembles The Cure in their pure pop glory, but there’s something about the intertwining of Russell’s voice with that of backing vocalist Joyce Bowden that makes it induce tears in this listener. Similarly, the title track, not so distant in style from some of the material that appeared on ‘Calling Out Of Context’ is about as harmonically commonplace as music can be, but has an unabashed directness that amplifies its impact one hundredfold.

Even in full knowledge of Russell’s open-mindedness, it’s still oddly shocking to hear him sing an acoustic folk song in the manner of ‘Close My Eyes’ (recorded by John Hammond), playing it as straight as possible and sounding not unlike James Taylor. Elsewhere, there’s material that reveals the influence of his connection with Jonathan Richman – ‘Time Away’ is a reductive, snarly gem. ‘What It’s Like’, sadly the only song from Russell’s band The Flying Hearts included here, is somehow both conventional and bizarre, a gospel-tinged ballad featuring a funereal horn section and a Russell voiceover about a preacher forsaking his lover for God.

There’s something spidery in Russell’s melodies that makes them compelling even when they are undeniably basic. Some of the pop music here is simply sublime – the melancholy Byrdsian twang of ‘Oh Fernanda Why’, the infectious, bouncy ‘Hey! How Does Everybody Know?’ or the lush romanticism of ‘Habit Of You’ all linger satisfyingly in the mind. Some of the more quirky, idiosyncratic selections demand repeated listens, gradually drawing us into Russell’s unique world.

Whilst there’s no doubt that ‘Love Is Overtaking Me’ offers myriad surprises, it also provides further evidence of the consistent threads running throughout Russell’s work. His devout perfectionism (perhaps he was as overtaken by music as by love), his commitment to popular appeal blighted by his inability to complete his work or ever be satisfied with his results, his boundary-crossing inventiveness. Perhaps the piece here that most accurately sums up his concerns is ‘Goodbye Old Paint’, a take on an old cowboy standard that begins like one of his instrumental sketches before expanding into a weird combination of Indian-influenced composition and American history. The joy here is that Russell’s versatility was so effortless and unselfconscious. His archive still seems to be a wealth of surprises and I very much doubt we have even yet come close to viewing the complete picture.

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