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Arthur Russell - The Sleeping Bag Sessions

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Artist: Arthur Russell

Album: The Sleeping Bag Sessions

Label: Traffic Entertainment

Review date: Apr. 9, 2009

The Arthur Russell revival project – begun in the first half of the decade – should be wrapping up about now. After several essential reissues and compilations, capped with last year’s curve ball revelation Love is Overtaking Me, there might not be much left. In a recent listed feature, Audika label-head Steve Knutson drew saliva from the mouths of Russell fans with a list of his 10 favorite Russell tracks that we will never hear. While his descriptions of half-finished and half dubbed-over gems were tantalizing in the extreme, he also assured readers that more or less everything releasable from the 1,000-plus cassette tape stash Russell left when he died is now in the public realm.

The Sleeping Bag Sessions compiles the singles released on Sleeping Bag Records, the label founded in 1982 by Russell and William Socolov. These singles – which span for ‘82 to ‘86 – are some of Russell’s most party-ready jams. If World of Echo mirrors his increasing isolation, The Sleeping Bag Sessions capture Russell at his most social, gathering a rotating cast of musicians, singers and MCs in the studio to flesh out his ideas, in pursuit of the next dance hit that, at this time, he believed be to always dangling just out of reach. The results (released under a slew of half-serious group names) are as varied as they are intriguing.

"Chill Pill,” released under the moniker Sounds of JHS 126 Brooklyn, is Russell at his most hip hop and overtly fun. It turns out that the echo techniques he tinkered endlessly with work surprisingly well when applied to an MC. "5 Minutes" is a funky beat-heavy romp built around a clipped and scratched portion of a Ronald Reagan press conference joke. It easily surpasses its gimmick conceit (but that doesn’t mean we need its other two nearly indistinguishable mixes, also included here). The original 12" cut of "School Bell, Tree House" is both the weightiest and most idiosyncratically Russell track here. It’s a meandering 10 minutes where electronics and drum machines coexist with tablas, echoed cello and Russell’s incomparable vocal ticks.

For a collection of his dance singles these are not as disco as one might expect. While a Walter Gibbons mix of the seminal "Go Bang" is here, "Is It All Over My Face?" and "Kiss Me Again" were released earlier and on different labels – the latter being in the odd position of being one of Russell’s most successful songs and, because it was released on Sire, perhaps his sole un-compiled/reissued track of note. The tracks are strong, but they don’t congeal with the same coherence as, say, Calling Out of Context. Nor are they as recognizably imbued with the artist’s singular musical vision.

So how does this release contribute to the ever-increasing appreciation of Russell’s work? To be sure it will add a few tracks to a good mix tape and show a couple more dimensions to Russell’s already impressive dance-pop repertoire. Another disc of decent to great rare Russell tunes made available is a valuable service in its own right, but in the fleshed-out corpus of Russell’s work, The Sleeping Bag Sessions is not essential. Honestly, it’s too late in the game to ask for any more.

By Brandon Kreitler

Other Reviews of Arthur Russell

The World of Arthur Russell

Calling Out Of Context

World of Echo

First Thought Best Thought

Another Thought


Love is Overtaking Me

Read More

View all articles by Brandon Kreitler

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