Arthur Russell was of those anomalous personalities whose contribution to music was characterized by its stubborn resistance to rote categorization and over-determined response. An unabashed innovator who specialized in fusing some of the most incongruent of genres, Russell made his mark on many of New York avant garde scenes and changed them for just a moment before fading into obscurity.
Russell was born in 1951 in Oskaloosa, Iowa. He was classically trained as a cellist, studying under Indian virtuoso Ali Akbar Khan in San Francisco where he lived for a time on a Buddhist commune. He kept company with the arbiters of the city's underground, most notably Allan Ginsberg, occasionally accompanying his poetry readings with his cello. In the mid-'70s, Russell moved to New York City where he became interested in dance and disco compositions, collaborating with artists such as the pre-Talking Heads David Byrne, No-Wave luminary Rhys Chatham, and avant garde composer Peter Zummo. Throughout the late '70s and '80s, Russell released dance singles that crystallized his reputation as a talented innovator culminating in the 1983 experimental album Tower of Meaning released by Phillip Glass's label Chatham Square Records. During this time, Russell also established himself as a disco producer and dabbled in modern dance, performance art, and film. By the time of his death from AIDS in 1992, however, Russell had been largely forgotten by the music scene, though earnest obituaries from all over the rock, avant garde, and dance landscape paid tribute to him after the fact.
Calling Out of Context is a cumulative salvage effort to piece together a record out of scores of material from a record entitled Corn (completed in 1985 but never released) and countless hours of recordings intended for a Rough Trade record that was never finalized. The finished product released on Audika represents a substantial effort on the part of the label to reopen the book on such an important artist who seems all the more relevant in today's musical landscape where the kind of genre bending and innovative appropriation Russell perfected are contemporary markers of a postmodern musical sensibility.
Context opens up with a song adorably entitled "A Deer in the Forest Part One". An arrhythmic jumbling of electronic keyboard pulses, this song builds slowly, but never climaxes, a trick characteristic of Russell's counterintuitive arrangements. "The Platform on the Ocean" is a humming dance track, where Russell's voice drifts over droning fuzz riffs, made through the over-distortion of Russell's signature instrument, the cello. It's difficult to compare this kind of dance music to the slick pop patterning that dance kids shake their asses to in after-hours clubs, or traditional disco stylings that bring to mind images of overly-rouged women in leotards and skirts. "Platform" is dance at its noisiest and most sophisticated, as it alludes conventional beat and melody in favor of a floating call and response whose insistent echoes recall a post-industrial wasteland far more than the glittery ecstasy of Studio 54. This is because Russell allows his compositions to convey more than rhythmic abandon. For Russell, there is an emptiness that lurks behind even his most pop-filled arrangements, the undeniable presence of a void that can be dolled up with noise, but can never be truly filled.
If "Deer in the Forest" and "Platform on the Ocean" are arrangements that prove anticipatory, preemptively giving the people what they didn't know that they wanted yet, the next couple of tracks "You and Me Both" and the record's title song "Calling Out of Context" are songs that bears the marks of the era in which they were written. Plying listeners' ears with tinny drum smacks and dark bass blips, "You and Me Both" is a remnant straight out of the '80s space dance closet. Only Russell's lilting vocals make this track unique adding a layer of ghostly atonality over the thump of a semi-monotonous rhythm. "Arm Around You" is a spirited and spooky number, with buoyant drum smacks and hissing cymbals holding down a vocal melody that is catchy in a way that is almost pop. "I Like You!" is similarly engaging, utilizing cute samples and tinny percussion to dress up the dark noise of the static-filled cello. "Calling All Kids" uses the same to an ever more pleasing affect, a clarion call to the youthfully minded everywhere, as a deep and echoing voice chants repeatedly, the silly yet truthful adage, "Grown-ups are crazy".
Like The World of Arthur Russell , another collection of Russell's work also released this year on Soul Jazz records, Calling Out of Context demands that the world take pause and recognize the contributions Russell made to the disparate genres of dance, disco, dub, and experimental music. His absolute fearlessness in lending his own unique style to even the most unlikely sound combinations is peerless, resulting in a collection of material that will most likely continue to challenge and fascinate former fans and new listeners for years to come.