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Friday, November 25, 2011

Arthur Russell: First Thought Best Thought


1) "Instrumentals" Volume 1; 2) "Instrumentals" Volume 2; 3) Reach One; 4) Tower Of Meaning; 5) Sketch For The Face Of Helen.

This monster 2-CD set is not for the common man. Completely instrumental and mostly «mini­ma­list / ambient» in scope, it is a great discovery for the Giants of the Open-Minded Approach. In the meantime, I can only try to review it from the humble viewpoint of the Dwarf of the Open-Minded Approach, with all the honesty and integrity that go along with it. (Besides, it's always a great opportunity to use dirty words and get away with it).

The first CD includes two «volumes» of «Instrumentals» – two sets of meditative musical paint­ings, at least the first of which goes back to the mid-Seventies, when it was designed to accompa­ny some nature photos taken by a Japanese photographer (A-R-T, boys and girls!). For some rea­son, though, only the second volume saw the light of day in Russell's own lifetime (originally re­leased in 1984)...

...which, I think, is a great injustice, since Volume 1 is far more interesting. Listening to it syn­thesizes the idea of an «art-pop jam» in my mind, which is something fairly unique. We all know jazz jams, blues jams, psychedelic drone jams etc., but this stuff sounds a bit like... well, imagine Brian Wilson's backing band on Pet Sounds that, one of those days, suddenly decided to take a break and just kick back and improvise on some of the themes, without soloing.

Basically, it's a set of free-flowing rhythmic motions, with lots of instruments that behave «nor­mally», but «atmospherically», just drifting around without any apparent goal. Horns, strings (in­cluding Russell's own cello), and percussion are usually in the lead, but guitars, bass, and probab­ly numerous other instruments are also present. Technically, it is «boring», and not exactly «bea­utiful» in the conventional sense of the word, but it also does not feel one bit pretentious. Some­how, it manages to create a minimalistic impression without actually being minimalistic — with all these instruments, you'd think there'd be a lot of stuff going on, when nothing really goes on. So, if you want to really learn how to create Nothing from Lotsa Something, this here is a ten-sec­tion crash course that I find amazingly instructive.

'Volume 2' is where the problems start. To learn my opinion of it, please refer to the Tower Of Meaning review — not accidentally, Tower Of Meaning itself constitutes the bulk of the second disk here, flowing almost seamlessly out of the second chunk of 'Instrumentals'. Although the first track still has some percussion and extra stuff, it is dominated by cello droning, which even­tually squeezes out everything else. If you like to spend long winter evenings listening to gusts of wind howling in the pipes... ah, well, forget it.

To «round things out», the second disc ends with a very early experimental composition (the six­teen-minute long 'Reach One', on which Russell records a competition in minimalism between two Fender Rhodes pianos), and 'Sketch For The Face Of Helen', on which a field recording of a started-up tugboat is combined with an electronic tone generator — tons of fun for the entire fa­mily, especially if the father is an electrician at the local harbor.

Still, the presence of 'Instrumentals Vol. 1' makes the album a very important release in Russell's post-mortem history, maybe even a must-have for all those interested in collecting as many di­ver­si­fied approaches to music-making as possible. These are cool, melodic, thoroughly un-ugly, and yet, quite unique trills coming from your speakers, and they do a far better job of «colorizing» the guy than about 50% of his released output. (The rest, for all I know, may be exclusively for those A-R-T people whose grand­mothers were abducted by aliens).

Check "First Thought Best Thought" (CD) on Amazon
Check "First Thought Best Thought" (MP3) on Amazon

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