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Arthur Russell - World of Echo

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Artist: Arthur Russell

Album: World of Echo

Label: Audika

Review date: Nov. 14, 2004

Arthur Russell was a great many things throughout his unfortunately brief life. Born and raised in Iowa, he trained on the piano and his mother's old cello before departing the environs of the Midwest for a Buddhist temple in San Francisco. His ability to devote completely was hindered by one material possession: his cello. It may seem strange for a religious devotee to have years of study derailed by such physical devotion, and yet while listening to World of Echo, his masterpiece – his life summation pressed to tape as the vapors of his voice and lithe cello figures disintegrated into the air – it makes sense. The cello wasn't just Russell's instrument. It was a part of his voice, in addition to that bittersweet, sentimental set of pipes that brought forth the actual words.

Audika's limited edition CD/DVD reissue of World of Echo marks the third installment in the Arthur Russell renewal program, and although it contains precisely zero disco hits or unearthed, unheard material (save for four bonus tracks), it's easily the most significant, compelling, beautiful and monumental piece of work Russell ever committed to record. Originally issued in 1986, the World of Echo was unlike much of the material that he had released previously. And yet in releasing a record comprised of spare voice and cello pieces, aided with minimal electronic trickery, Russell was drawing a line through his own life's work, linking the avant-garde sensibilities that brought him to New York City in the first place directly to the deep spirituality and playfulness that imbued much of his best dance material.

World of Echo isn't really a pop record in the conventional sense of the word, however. Russell eschewed the more common sounds of the cello – the broad, sweeping swaths of melody and tone – in favor of more phased-out, distorted, and at times minimally percussive figures. Although not a singer-songwriter in any of the more traditional senses, his work on this record still seems to emanate from the same spaces that brought forth the greatest material from Nick Drake, Judee Sill, or Alexander "Skip" Spence. World of Echo is less a collection of songs and more a reflection of an actual human being, a representation of the thoughts, hopes, dreams and deep sadness that permeated the hours of everyday life.

It's difficult to glean such insight purely on the face of the music itself. For this record, Russell dropped his preoccupation with beats and eliminated his complex arrangements. What remains is a skeletal framework, bare melodies rising to the surface, vocal lines encompassing wordless singing, constantly shifting textures swirling throughout. The cello takes center stage, naked then enveloped in a sea of distortion, reverb and phase shifting. Few, if any, of the performances captured here seem schemed; these are pure responses, concerned only with communicating the heart’s desire.

Descriptions, then, seem somewhat irrelevant. "Being It" sounds almost psychedelic – a gorgeous melody coated in feedback, allowing Russell's voice the room to breathe, to roam the higher registers. Any words that do exist here are meaningless. It's only when taken as a whole, in conjunction with his cello that the full picture begins to emerge – a sense of hope, of wonder in song-form unlike almost anything else. "Lucky Cloud" is more rhythmic, with Russell slapping at the cello, roaming the stratosphere with his voice while electronic gurgles underpin the whole movement. The ending comes suddenly, after a couple minutes and without warning for a piece that could go on for a lifetime. "Soon to be Innocent Fun/Let's See" slides effortlessly from timid beginnings towards pensive restraint, shrugging off the last vestigial traces of self-consciousness. "Tower of Meaning/Rabbit's Ear/Home Away from Home" works a similar progression, tying together three haunting strains of thought.

Arthur Russell also included solo versions of some of his more popular dance tracks. Captured here, "Tree House" showcases a rhythm that's all intuition, and yet every bit as propulsive when plucked on the cello as it was on its familiar 12” version. Similarly, "Wax the Van" is taken away from the floor and out onto the cold streets of New York – walking home, in the early hours of the morning, tense with energy and yet with an odd sense of regret. "Let's Go Swimming" provides the album proper's final coda – a labyrinthine cello figure cut against Russell's sorrowful vocal, unhappy and yet still, always, with that silver lining of hope.

Anything said about the various meanings to be gleaned from Russell's performances on this record is pure conjecture. The man gave few interviews throughout his life, thus leaving in his death a figure as shrouded in enigma as he is in beauty. The DVD component of Audika's reissue does little to address that, but rather provides what seem to be analogous visual counterparts to the type of material contained on the album itself. Both "Terrace of Unintelligibility" and "Some Imaginary Far Away Type Things/AKA Lost in the Meshes" are Phill Niblock films set in very much the same style. The shots are all tightly focused on Russell as he plays, traipsing through various bits and pieces of the ideas contained on World of Echo. Niblock shifts gradually, from his face, to his hands, to his mouth as he forms those evocatively unintelligible syllables – showcasing Arthur Russell in part and parcel indeed, but nevertheless illuminating the fact that there was always far more to this soul than the eye could ever meet.

Ultimately, I can't profess to have had any significant knowledge or understanding of Arthur Russell and his work prior to the spate of reissues that have come forth this year. And honestly, even after absorbing all of that music and the various comp tracks I have known for some time, I'm no closer to any true understanding then I was before. The world of Arthur Russell is not something that can easily be summarized or annotated, much like World of Echo, the arguable lynchpin upon which it all rests. But in my limited experience, the best pieces of music are not those that readily expose themselves. They are the ones that reveal layer upon layer of sound and meaning no matter how deeply you delve. Arthur Russell's World of Echo is precisely that type of record – a place where music and persona intertwine so fundamentally and pull you so deeply within its grasp that the prospect of never emerging again doesn't seem so bad. In fact, it seems like the perfect place to spend eternity.

By Michael Crumsho

Other Reviews of Arthur Russell

The Sleeping Bag Sessions

The World of Arthur Russell

Calling Out Of Context

First Thought Best Thought

Another Thought


Love is Overtaking Me

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View all articles by Michael Crumsho

Find out more about Audika

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