It’s both wonderful and frustrating that so much of Arthur Russell‘s music is incomplete or open-ended. Russell supposedly left behind something like a thousand tapes, many of them not-quite-finished recordings or variations on particular songs, when he died from AIDS-related complications in 1992. He was one of the great geniuses of New York City music—a brilliant melodist and even better catalyst who brought together the Downtown experimental music scene, the disco world, and the singer/songwriter tradition. And, as beautiful as his solo voice-and-cello recordings are, he also thrived on giving collaborators raw material to explore and shape: the long list of artists with whom he recorded includes Talking Heads, Allen Ginsberg, François Kevorkian, and Peter Gordon.
All of that suggests that his music would make for a hell of a tribute album, which is true of this double-CD set–a half that consists of covers of the songs that were more or less open-ended when Russell recorded them. Robyn‘s take on “Tell You (Today)”, a giddy disco jam by Russell’s short-lived group Loose Joints, concentrates it from a seven-minute sprawl to a 3:45 pop shimmer; she sings it like it’s her favorite song in the world, even stumbling over a line exactly the way Loose Joints’ Joyce Bowden did. Hot Chip approach “Go Bang” as a set of modular components rather than a stable composition—arguably the same way Russell treated it when he recorded it with Dinosaur L—and arrange them into a big tent to hold a disco party inside.
Blood Orange goes even further in that direction, attempting to hybridize bits of Loose Joints’ disco classic “Is It All Over My Face” and Russell’s orchestral piece “Tower of Meaning”. It doesn’t quite jell, but it’s at least in the spirit of Russell’s own why-not attitude. There’s a previously unreleased song included here, too: Ernie Brooks (who played with Russell in the Flying Hearts), Peter Zummo (who recorded minimalist instrumental music with him), and Liam Finn‘s contribution to Master Mix is the exquisite “This Love Is Crying”, which they picked up from an old rehearsal tape.
Russell’s recordings are enormously idiosyncratic, and a lot of Master Mix‘s contributors try to normalize his music: sanding off his bristling electric cello tones, hammering repeated phrases into choruses, singing with dramatic intonation in place of his ethereal reserve. (The major exception is Lonnie Holley, whose four brief “interludes” here abstract Russell pieces further.) That often works just fine, surprisingly. Russell’s “Eli” was a rhythmless, wounded shout into the darkness; the version by Rubblebucket and Nitemoves doubles its duration, snaps it to a foursquare beat, replaces the cello with misty rock instrumentation, and ends up recalling mid-’80s Cocteau Twins. Sam Amidon tweaks World of Echo‘s stream-of-consciousness piece “Lucky Cloud” into something that might be sung around a campfire rather than murmured alone in a dark forest. Scissor Sisters‘ “That’s Us/Wild Combination” slicks up and modernizes the arrangement from Russell’s Calling Out of Context, emphasizing how similar it is to their own music.
Where this collection falters is in its second half, with a string of artists covering Russell’s more straightforward songs—the three-minute guitar-pop tunes that mostly ended up on his posthumous collection Love Is Overtaking Me. Glen Hansard, Thao & the Get Down Stay Down, and the Autumn Defense perform Russell’s songs precisely as their author did, in the same key and at the same tempo, without singing them quite as elegantly. Those are the sort of “tributes” that are purely gestural, honoring songs by showing up for them rather than by reshaping them. But one of the things that made Russell’s work special (and, arguably, kept him from completing so much of it) was his conviction that there was always more to discover within it.
from Album Reviews – Pitchfork http://ift.tt/1x32RqG