This career-spanning collection of Arthur Russell's avant-disco and general oddities is long overdue. Russell died in 1992 of AIDS; he was largely forgotten in the face of an alt-rock culture too "real" for disco and a rave music culture for whom 1988 was year zero. But a dozen years later, Russell's turn-of-the-'70s New York City milieu has become the lingua franca for a new generation of kids who wish to link arms between the dancefloor, rock show, art gallery, and bedsit confessional. So it's about time that Russell, who predicted and predated all of this punk-funk-avant-disco stuff, gets his due.
Russell was one of the key artists to mark the lineage between the BeeGees and Daft Punk, but be forewarned: His is not house music as currently practiced. It's disco, with all the extended percussion breaks, Travolta-limbed basslines, swirling strings, and glutinous electric keyboards that genre implies. In a way, Russell's closest peer as a "dance" producer might be Jamaican dub pioneer King Tubby. "Go Bang" opens just like a classic Tubby dub. Drums make their opening statement, swishing and scraping like metal rakes against pavement, along with a quavering horn line. Both follow a wobbly path throughout the track, trailed by a successive panoply of voices, horns, guitar, and percussion, all liberally smeared with reverb and echo.
Russell's avant-garde tendencies (witness the sublime "In The Light of the Miracle," which begins as a prototype for Theo Parrish's tech-house night-drives through Babylon before spiraling out into pure, irradiated bliss) and singer-songwriter pretensions (such as "Keeping Up", which situates James Taylor-style pop-folk somewhere between Chain Reaction's heroin house and Steve Reich's pulse vamps) were both key parts of his genius. But they didn't always make his phunk ready for the people: He would later lament DJs' tendency to choose party-fodder tracks over more oblique choices.
What thrills about Russell's work now is this feeling of a very singular vision: He's a mimsy folkie who let a DJ save his life one night and never looked back, a post-minimalist composer who was put through the technological wringer. In 2004, when every other guy with an iMac is declared a genius, Russell's gorgeous, neutered, fragile falsetto and the sloppy, slouchy drums on "Pop Your Funk" still sound like the most beautiful sounds on the planet, 25 years later. There's a humanity to this music, a warmth of spirit that no pro forma white label house 12-inch can match.
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