ARTHUR RUSSELL: WORLD OF ECHO (1986)
1) Tone Bone Kone; 2) Soon-To-Be Innocent Fun / Let's See; 3) Answers Me; 4) Being It; 5) Place I Know / Kid Like You; 6) She's The Star / I Take This Time; 7) Tree House; 8) See-Through; 9) Hiding Your Present From You; 10) Wax The Van; 11) All-Boy All-Girl; 12) Lucky Cloud; 13) Tower Of Meaning / Rabbit's Ear / Home Away From Home; 14) Let's Go Swimming; 15*) The Name Of The Next Song; 16*) Happy Ending; 17*) Canvas Home; 18*) Our Last Night Together.
If you only know about this album from the All-Music Guide review — beware, beware! The author, "Blue" Gene Tyranny, tags the record as «an incredible assemblage of solo versions of this influential and unique downtown musician» and describes it as «subtle, transcendental with gentle rock beats and new music influences in patternings and textures». But then, of course, at the other end of the playground there's always Joe the Plumber, who calls World Of Echo «the biggest pile of sonic shit I've ever seen — and, believe you me, when I'm talking about seeing shit, I damn well know what I'm talking about!» With both sides of the story thus in the can, it's up to you to make your own choice.
If the title of Tower Of Meaning could only be perceived with irony, World Of Echo is pretty straightforward. It is mostly just Arthur and his cello, sometimes with a little extra percussion thrown in; the cello itself is either bowed in a modern-classical manner, or plucked to get a jazzy rhythm going on (so much for «new music influences»: by 1986, none of these tricks were new, although, granted, it was rather novel to hear them from a guy formerly known as an enthusiastic «intelligent disco music» activist).
The big difference is that, well, everything has an echo. The plucked cello, the bowed cello, the vocals, even the percussion — everything is run through echo effects of varying force. As a result, the louder you turn up your speakers, the more you get the feeling that either it is you sitting inside a deep stone well and the cellist is performing on top, or vice versa. Some would call this effect psychedelic, but, the way I see it, psychedelic music is an attempt to mimic the complex, unpredictable, and uncontrollable processes going through your brain, and this sort of effect is fully external rather than internal. If you ever experience something like World Of Echo going inside your brain, better see a doctor at once — most likely, you have a concussion or something.
I have seen people swear by this album as the lone forgotten masterpiece of 1986. Unfortunately, I can neither join them nor jeer at them, because every time I listen to these «tunes», or, rather, what sounds to me like raw improvisatory attempts to put together a set of tunes, I cannot understand if there is some compositional or artistic genius inside, or if there isn't: the damn echo keeps getting me all muddled. Content-wise, World Of Echo could be called «diverse»: there's some gentle pastoralism ('Soon-To-Be-Innocent Fun', 'She's The Star'), power-pop ('Being It'), New Wave ('Place I Know'), garage-rock ('Treehouse'), hard rock ('Wax The Van'), maybe something else, but you could just as well shift some of these tags around — that's just some spur-of-the-moment impressions. Formally, it's all just «echo music», and I am unable to determine if it's all a huge attempt to arrogantly mask the lack of genius by drowning it in the excessive abuse of production gadgetry, or an attempt to humbly mask the presence of genius by hiding it behind a wall of innovative production ideas. (Occasionally, I tilt towards the latter, because some of these tunes, e. g. 'Wax The Van', are alternate versions of the man's notable disco hits from previous years – but, on the other hand, not all of these tunes were that fabulous in the first place).
One thing is for certain: World Of Echo sounds like nothing ever done before. This sort of experimentation has its firm roots in avantgarde and jazz history, as well as occasional explorations in pop music territory (I'd say Skip Spence's Oar might be one of the forefathers), but the combination of length, chosen instruments, and a total lack of compromise ensures that this will always be a cult favorite, no matter how small the cult. Even for naysayers, it might be useful to listen to this stuff once, make an effort not to make «hate this useless crap» into a final verdict, and then put it away, with a possibility to return to it once more... some day. Which is exactly what we are going to do right now, and move on.
PS. The most curious track is actually available now as a bonus on the new CD edition: the eight minute long 'The Name Of The Next Song', where, every few bars, Arthur stops playing and says "The name of the next song is...", then invents some crazyass title which I cannot make out because of the goddamn echo (yeah, I suck at airport loudspeakers too), and goes on playing the same cello-raga with different words. It's so overwhelmingly silly, it just works.
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