Moving Up Country
With every subsequent posthumous collection pulled from the archives of obsessive producer Arthur Russell, the fallen angel of disco-as-art/brittle cello hymnals, moves closer to a place in the grand musical canon. If a hallmark of all rock'n'roll saints is having their personal collections stripmined for anything half-releasable (Jimi Hendrix Blues anyone?), then Russell is on his way.
Of course, given Russell was renowned for endlessly working on dozens of different mixes of any single song, perhaps it should be no surprise that the recent rise in Russellophilia suggests a future time in which the pop-cultural landscape is swamped with excavations of his manifold dabblings. Love is Overtaking Me, thankfully, doesn't signal that time.
Concurrently released with the DVD edition of Matt Wolf's motion-picture documentary Wild Combination, this latest posthumous collection was loving collated by Chris Taylor of Grizzly Bear, from the archives tended to by Russell's 'widow' Tom Lee. It stitches together —from a variety of different Russell helmed projects: The Flying Hearts, The Sailboats, Turbo Sporty, Bright & Early— a series of songs steeped in country and folksong tradition.
If Russell has found fame for the insularity of his studies in hypnotic minimalism and dancefloor repetition, Love is Overtaking Me offers something completely unexpected: Russell as traditional songwriter, Russell as crowdpleasing entertainer, Russell as peddler of Americana.
The Singing Works Just Fine for Me
Though inextricably linked with New York and its queer scene, Russell grew up amidst Iowa cornfields, and it certainly wouldn't be trite to suggest that the countrified licks that populate this disc are drawn from childhood influence. "What It's Like" starts with the half-spoken lines "In Iowa/in the tall grass/there's a couple," and, musically, it seems indebted to church organ and pulpit sermons.
Drawing from such land and tradition, Russell employs, across the set, sweeps of pedal steel, rich piano chords, brassy horns, and other hallmarks of slightly-country '70s singer-songwriterism. But there's also a tendency towards incongruously twee keytone (see: "Habit of You" and "Hey! How Does Everybody Know?"), and, in the middle of the record, there's "Eli," two minutes of strangulated lamentation and discordant cello that turns out to be an ode to a homeless dog.
This record isn't loaded with the avant-gardism of Russell's better-known works, but there's always elements testing the boundaries of 'straight' songwriting: his take on the traditional "Goodbye Old Paint," for one, featuring North Indian influence (tabla and sitar drone) colliding with orchestral atonalism.
What resounds most clearly, throughout, is Russell's singing. Far from the mumbled, delay-bathed loner of World of Echo, here Russell sounds like an acclaimed singer-songwriter in training; his voice landing halfway between John Martyn and James Taylor. For an artist whose bow already seemed plentifully stringed, this newly-unearthed side of Russell only adds to the complexity of his unique legacy.
Record Label: Audika
Release Date: 28 October 2008