Chuckle if you want to at the endless cycle of rediscovery and revival that
churns forward year by year, bringing musical styles back to attention
roughly two decades after their first heyday. (It's almost time for the
comeback of early industrial, so break out the Nitzer Ebb and Front 242.)
But if a reissue can spark enough interest in Arthur Russell to lead to
articles in The New Yorker, Slate and The New York Times in
the span of a couple of weeks, the whole process is worth it.
In this case,
most of the
credit for getting the ball rolling goes to Britain's Soul Jazz label, which
has compiled and reissued a jaw-dropping amount of great music in the past
few years from Strata East jazz to ESG, Jackie Mittoo to Mantronix,
all with sharp packaging and overflowing liner notes.
Born in Iowa, Russell bounced first to San Francisco and then to New York,
where the eclectic downtown music scene of the 1970s was the perfect place
for a classically trained experimental cellist to fall in love with dance
music. He came into the orbit of dance-world figures like Larry Levan, Nicky
Siano, and Steve D'Aquisto, who were busy inventing the DJ as we know him
today, plus adventurous rock and pop musicians such as David Byrne and Jerry
of Talking Heads and leaders of the avant scene such as Philip Glass.
Employing boundless curiosity, enthusiasm, perfectionism and a short
attention span, Russell wove these strands into music that fits easily into
no category except "Arthur Russell."
Probably the best-known Russell song is the free-flowing disco single "Is
It All Over My Face," mixed by Levan and credited to Loose Joints, a makeshift
band of friends and collaborators. (For those who still think disco is a
dirty word, this album is your wake-up call.) Instead of celebrating sex
or drugs, as might be expected from the title and the decadent, Studio 54
frame, the track's few lyrics soulfully sung over an elastic bass
line, pumping four-four beat and warm keyboards are about the childlike
joy of dancing. Joy, excitement and wonder are the most persistent emotions
Russell's music, most obvious on a celebration song like Dinosaur L's "Go
Bang!" ("I want to see all my friends at once/ I want to go bang!"), but
also present in ghostly traces even in a song that's quite the opposite,
such as the quiet "A Little Lost."
In fact, the wonderfully spare "Keeping Up" and "A Little Lost," with only
cello to accompany Russell's plaintive vocals, achieve a timeless beauty
that the rhythmic tracks, for all their innovation, can't match. Two other
releases on the Audika label explore this vein of Russell's music even more
extensively: Calling Out of Context, featuring never-released tracks,
and the forthcoming reissue World of Echo. The entire late-'70s-early
'80s era of pioneering pop and dance music is getting overdue attention these
days, from Josell Ramos' film "Maestro," which documents the Gallery, Loft,
and Paradise Garage clubs, to the just-published book "Love Saves the Day:
A History of American Dance Music Culture 1970-1979." And a double-disc set
released last year on Garage Records, Larry Levan Live at the Legendary
captures the art of mixing in its early days.
Now, on to the next rediscovery ...