Calling Out of Context
iving with a terminal disease separates you from the rest of the human race (despite the fact that, as one writer once put it, “Once you’re born the gun is cocked”). The action of finishing things, under these circumstances, is one fraught with the eventual realization that you, too, will soon be finished. When Arthur Russell died, he left approximately 1000 tapes of music and 1000 pages of lyrics, in varying states of completion behind. Many of these tapes contained the same songs, completed in a variety of ways, allowing for the possibility of different endings. Calling Out of Context is a compendium of “finished songs”, from Russell’s Corn album (of which three very different versions exist), and unfinished songs from an album that he was recorded for Rough Trade from 1986 to 1990.
For an album recorded over such a length of time, the songs sound remarkably cohesive together. Many of Russell’s main musical concerns are present here: the beauty of echo, the cello and a stiff disco beat all are ever present in this recording, proving Russell’s avant disco to be far ahead of its time. The album begins with a short instrumental that mixes keyboard, cello and trombone—the disorienting nature of each element answering, seemingly, to its own rhythm is lessened by the overall beauty of their construction. “The Platform on the Ocean” comes next, setting out the thesis for much of the album. Russell uses the echo effect on his voice, rendering it no less intelligible, but allowing himself to come to the listener from two or three different places at once. The strict backing is not exactly a disco beat and not exactly post-punk, but lies somewhere in between the two.
Russell is perhaps at his best, and most accessible, on songs in which he combines the effect of all three elements into one track, amid a healthy does of melodicism. “Arms Around You” uses Russell simplistic lyrics to great effect, allowing the power of the keyboard and drum machine to carry the track, making each minor change in the song of grave import. The next song, “That’s Us/Wild Combination”, is equally as memorable, introducing a melody in the first seconds and then abandoning it, only having it reappear later in the piece triumphantly merging with the song. Light and airy, the song typifies Russell at his best, weaving in between the sound of his own voice and the disease that was slowly killing him.
There is rather little to be said about the prestige Russell has enjoyed among music fans and listeners in the past few months. Criminally overlooked for far too long, Russell is finally getting his due with this and Soul Jazz’s own compilation of his work in the span of only a few months, cementing the fact that Russell was a genius—never to be recognized in his own time, but to be enjoyed by generations to come.