Review by Thom Jurek
Since 2005, New York City's Audika imprint has dedicated itself to releasing the recordings of the late composer, cellist, and singer/songwriter Arthur Russell, a musical polymath who was as comfortable in the discos of Manhattan as he was in a cowboy hat in the fields as he appears here, on the cover of Love Is Overtaking Me. Audika has issued four albums -- three different compilations centering on different aspects of his musical adventurousness, an EP, and his seminal World of Echo album. Love Is Overtaking Me contains 21 tracks recorded between 1974 and 1990. It reveals another dimension of this seemingly limitless musician: his pop and country-ish recordings, done solo as demos, in session with the brilliant John Hammond at Columbia, and with musicians from the East Village and downtown scenes including Peter Gordon Ernie Brooks, Andy Paley, Jerry Harrison, Steven Hall, Larry Saltzman, Jon Gibson, Jimmy Chamberlain, David Van Tieghem, and Peter Zummo. Some of these are rehearsal versions of tunes he performed and recorded with his bands the Flying Hearts and the Sailboats project with Hall.
Russell's companion Tom Lee wrote the liner notes to this set and discusses the sheer possibility for mass appeal in these songs; he's not exaggerating. Take a listen to the demo of the title track recorded with Hall on guitar, drummer Rob Shepperson, and conguero Mustafa Khaliq Ahmed. Its verse/chorus structure is woven straight from classic organic pop/rock melody -- think a less twisted Jonathan Richman -- and is utterly infectious. Elsewhere, in "I Couldn't Say It to Your Face," one can hear traces of John Lennon, James Taylor, and Randy Newman. Recorded by Hammond, this cut featured a full band with Gibson, Brooks, Gordon, Paley, trombonist Garrett List, and bassist Jon Sholle. The melody shimmers underneath a lyric that contains warmth, love, anger, and irony. The very next track, "This Time Dad You're Wrong," with a standard rock quartet, features a shuffling country rhythm under a melody that combines the sophistication of Big Star and the poetic directness of Willie Nelson. The latter is exaggerated a bit on the spoken/sung "What It's Like," but it's a story song and it works. The opening number, "Close My Eyes," is a pure country waltz, with Russell accompanying himself on a guitar -- he was almost as deft on it as he was on cello. These tunes reflect Russell's California origins. But there's the other side too; the New York side in the rockin' "Big Moon" and "Janine," which, though utterly friendly and even beautiful, is a kind of fractured future pop that transcends its form. On "Love Comes Back," Russell accompanies himself with a cheap drum machine and keyboards; he closes the entire argument as to what he was about artistically no matter how wide-ranging his recordings were: he was a composer and songwriter who wished -- and succeeded -- to express tenderness, empathy, and gentleness in everything he did. Russell's music connected with so many of his peers -- no matter what scene they were in -- and with his posthumous listeners for that reason alone. Russell was 100-percent genuine, and as Ted Berrigan once wrote, "on the level, everyday." This is one of the finest chapters yet in Audika's continuing retrospective. Let's hope there is still more where this came from.
Love Is Overtaking Me
In the four years since Audika began releasing the much-loved but less easy to find music of composer and producer Arthur Russell, his popularity has soared. Particularly striking a chord with a younger generation of musicians, many have enthusiastically championed his progressive and influential sound. In 2007, Jens Lekman arranged the brief but tenderly constructed EP, Four Songs By Arthur Russell, which featured imaginative covers by Joel Gibb, Vera November, and Taken By Trees. Meanwhile, artists including Chris Taylor of Grizzly Bear (who digitally restored and edited Love Is Overtaking Me), St. Vincent, and DFA's James Murphy have effused about their admiration for his distinctively free-flowing, compelling arrangements.
As Matt Wolf's perceptive, beautifully shot film, Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell, reveals, Arthur Russell quite literally had hundreds of tape reels documenting the material he recorded, from his first compositions in the early 1970s to the very last made in 1991, a year before he died of AIDS in New York City. Love Is Overtaking Me, a compilation of more as-yet-unavailable material created during those two decades, proves to be a valuable insight into Russell's extensive body of work. Most of the 21 tracks on this album have a more traditional singer/songwriter structure than the avant-garde cello compositions and kinetic, jazz-influenced disco for which he has also come to be known. Tracks such as "Close My Eyes", "Oh Fernanda Why", and the traditional cowboy song "Goodbye Old Paint", are strong examples of his connection to folk music and are largely developed on acoustic guitar. A common thread always runs throughout Russell's work and is well represented here: his moving, gentle voice-- and a knack for storytelling that could rival Bob Dylan. On this album, these lovely lyrical details are especially prevalent on songs like "Habit of You" and "Big Moon", where Russell's sensitivity and sense of humor gracefully anchor the music.
Many other great artists at a similar level of Russell's prolificacy have more than enough skeletons in their musical closet, plenty of which would only appeal to the most die-hard of fans. The tracks currently being dusted off in his archive, however, have so far been dependably strong, despite being mostly unfinished tracks of incredible musical variety. Russell himself was rarely satisfied with his results, preferring to move on to the next song rather than dotting the i's and crossing the t's. His creativity, it seems, was pretty much constant. He would work every day without fail, and the songs on Love Is Overtaking Me are a deftly selected microcosm of this brilliant musical world. The compilation features all elements of Russell's margin blurring, from the warm pop of "Planted a Thought" and the Modern Lovers-influenced delivery of "Time Away" to the stark, cello driven song, "Eli", where the vocals and strings seemed to be in a tonal battle, although this brings an urgency to the lyrics (about a lonesome, mistreated dog) and allows them to resonate in the best possible way.
At the time of his death, Russell's music had reached only a limited audience outside of his devoted, often high profile connections (he collaborated with Philip Glass, David Byrne, and Allen Ginsberg, among others). Yet his distinctive music has the rare resilience to keep growing, connecting to more and more people because of its extraordinarily contemporary, even timeless, quality. While he was alive, Russell and his relatively small group of listeners were convinced that his music should reach more ears; that it should be able to stretch across the same boundaries that his compositions navigated so elegantly. Now, through the care of Audika and the genuine love of fellow musicians and fans that have recognized his prodigious talent, Russell is finally getting the acknowledgment his honest, powerful, and most remarkable music deserves.
— Mia Clarke, October 29, 2008