ARTHUR RUSSELL: CALLING OUT OF CONTEXT (2004)
1) The Deer In The Forest Part 1; 2) The Platform On The Ocean; 3) You And Me Both; 4) Calling Out Of Context; 5) Arm Around You; 6) That's Us / Wild Combination; 7) Make 1, 2; 8) Hop On Down; 9) Get Around To It; 10) I Like You!; 11) You Can Make Me Feel Bad; 12) Calling All Kids.
The floodgates really opened in 2004, when some of Russell's former friends and partners, backed by the Audika Records label, struck a deal with Arthur's estate that allowed them to prepare and release anything of worth that could be located in his vast archives. Calling Out Of Context and its follow-ups essentially opened up a second life for Russell — now, suddenly, after a long period of oblivion, he would be reincarnated as a hipster idol. Smart, cool, ahead of his time, experimental, lonely, misunderstood, romantic, played the cello, toyed with disco beats, died young and abandoned — Jesus Christ, eat your heart out.
If we are to believe the liner notes, most of the tracks here date from mid- to late 1980s, including selections from one fully finished, but unreleased, album, and one unfinished and, consequently, also unreleased album. Most of the playing is by Arthur himself, with the exception of live percussion and drum programming by Mustafa Akhmed, and synthesizer backing by Peter Zummo. And the big difference from Another Thought is that most of the tracks are danceable — beats, steady bass, and synth loops are all over the place here.
Melody-wise, most of it sucks. The drum machines are ugly, and memorable grooves are lacking. The overall goals are either «minimalistic» (when everything bar the drums and vocals is kept very quiet and in the background), or «expressionistic» (when cellos, guitars, and synths rumble and grumble without too much coherence, and you are supposed to school your soul into finding that coherence on your own). I cannot even tell which way I like it more, because in either case, horribly annoying 1980s percussion takes the cake.
As usual, the day is saved (or at least, redeemed) by whatever we have here of Russell's persona. Possibly not on purpose, most of the songs here are tied together by a lonesome romantic stretch: this is even more of a love ballad collection than Another Thought, and, as repetitive as they are, Arthur's vocal hooks on these tracks are absolutely the best thing about the album. You will have to wait for them, though, tearing through the long stretch of 'The Platform On The Ocean', whose neo-psychedelic vocal overdubs over a boring distorted guitar track are sort of pointless.
However, 'You And Me Both', 'Arm Around You', 'Get Around To It', and 'I Like You!' all have charming bits of falsetto gorgeousness, which, in typical Russell fashion, is lightly sprayed from your speakers across the room rather than concentrated and ejected forcefully in your face, as on a typical disco album. These are soft, melancholic, but highly friendly deliveries, the likes of which you can certainly never encounter in combination with such specific melodic backing as on an Arthur Russell album. It is almost incredible, in fact, that they were deliberately combined with this sort of music by the very same person — had I not known the details, I could have sworn that somebody just pilfered the lead vocals off some intelligent 1970s soft-rock album and spliced them over this odd mix of programmed beats.
Best of the lot is 'That's Us/Wild Combination', a heartwarming duet with Jennifer Warnes where, for once, the drumbeat is simply a drumbeat, unassumingly hacking away in the background and leaving the singers alone, backed just by a spare cello part. The song is, in fact, a good starting point for getting acquainted with Russell — for everyone, that is, who requires a fast initial seduction by the artist in order to be persuaded to explore the artist's career in-depth. Here you have cello, beauty, romance, intelligence, toe-tapping, echo, and accessibility.
Elsewhere, you have... problems. Much of the time, they can be overridden. Sometimes, they can't. In any case, it's a good thing the record is out: as far as it is from a masterpiece, it still salvages for us one more piece of this strange man's soul. As long as it does not breed dozens of wannabe-Russells, all of whom just happen to «really understand» what this man was all about because they are all so very much like him, Calling Out Of Context is a worthy addition to the already extravagant puzzle of «The True Colors Of Music In The 1980s».
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