An Introduction to Arthur Russell’s Weird, Wonderful World

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Disco producer, avant-garde experimentalist, classically trained cellist, visionary: there are few artists who’ve been both as under-appreciated and as influential as Arthur Russell. Over the course of his career, spanning the early ’70s until his AIDS-related death in 1992, Russell’s work encompassed a bewildering variety of projects, many of which never saw the light of day until after his death. With the all-star tribute album Master Mix: Red Hot + Arthur Russell out this week (and featuring Robyn, Hot Chip, Phosphorescent, Blood Orange, and many more), it seems like a fine time to look back at the great man’s remarkably diverse and innovative discography. If you’ve always wondered just where to start with Russell, wonder no longer!

Arthur Russell — World of Echo (1986)

The only place to start with Russell, really. This is the only full-length album to be released under Russell’s own name during his lifetime, and it remains his enduring masterpiece. It’s a strange, wonderful, immersive suite of songs that sound like pretty much nothing else before or since. There’s only Russell’s voice, his cello, and a smattering of minimal percussion, all drenched in the the echo that gives the album its title.

Arthur Russell — Instrumentals (1975)

Russell’s earliest forays into music involved classical composition. He studied under Ali Akbar Khan, and at some point in the early ’70s, he composed a suite of classical music that was meant to be played non-stop over the course of 48 hours. Such a performance never happened, but live recordings of parts of the suite exist, and were recently re-released on vinyl.

Allen Ginsberg with Arthur Russell and the Flying Hearts — “Ballad of the Lights” (mid-1970s)

Ginsberg was a lasting influence on Russell’s career. The two met in the early 1970s, and when Russell moved to New York from San Francisco in 1973, it was Ginsberg who found Russell an apartment (and even supplied him with electricity via a lengthy extension cord). Russell often accompanied Ginsberg on cello during the latter’s readings; this is a beautiful example of the two working together (along with the rest of Russell’s mid-’70s band, the Flying Hearts.)

Loose Joints — “Is It All Over My Face” (1980)

Despite his classical training and association with Ginsberg, Russell was best known as a disco producer before the release of World of Echo. His style was as distinctive as it was innovative — the mix here is spacious and minimalist, but somehow also full of warmth.

Dinosaur L — “Kiss Me Again” (feat. David Byrne) (1978)

This is one of the earliest examples of Russell’s dance music production, and it’s fascinating to hear the first stirrings of ideas that would go on to inform Chicago house in these tracks — the soulful vocals, the minimal instrumentation, the driving basslines. It also features guitar from David Byrne, who was a regular Russell collaborator and contributed, amongst other things, to the Flying Hearts.

Dinosaur L — “Go Bang” (François Kevorkian mix) (1982)

One more disco track for good measure, this one remixed by NYC dance music overlord François K. Again, it’s fascinating listening, both in the way it presages house music and also on its own merits. “Go Bang” is a curiously freeform piece of work, layering scattershot bongos, electric piano, bass riffs, and a strange array of vocal parts over a relentless, mechanical beat.

Talking Heads — “Psycho Killer” (feat. Arthur Russell) (1977)

The Russell/Byrne collaboration went both ways. Here’s a B-side version of “Psycho Killer” that features Russell’s instantly recognizable cello, in addition to the song’s familiar instrumentation. There’s a kind of interesting alternate second verse, too. (Byrne’s French accent isn’t any better than it is on the “normal” version, though.)

Arthur Russell — “Tower of Meaning” (1983)

The album Tower of Meaning contained seven tracks, all of which were called “Tower of Meaning.” Originally released privately, Tower of Meaning was printed a mere 320 times. Needless to say, it was essentially impossible to find, and thus highly sought-after by Russell completists. Its minimal, spacey sound pointed the way to World of Echo, and still makes for surprising listening today.

Arthur Russell — “Let’s Go Swimming” (Coastal Dub) (1986)

The Arthur Russell beach record! It’s still weird, obviously.

Indian Ocean — “School Bell” (1986)

Indian Ocean comprised Russell, producer Walter Gibbons, and trombone player Peter Zummo. This track falls pretty much smack-bang into the middle territory between Russell’s disco work and his more avant garde experimentalism. There’s a restlessness to the rhythms and an urgency that makes you want to start dancing, but the rest of the track is more about atmospheric textures than it is about anything resembling melody or, let’s be honest, accessibility. (And then, just when you think it can’t get any stranger, Russell starts panting, “Let’s go to bed!”)