Musicophilia Daily

[Review] – Arthur Russell’s ‘World of Echo’

Posted in Audio, Review by Soundslike on March 6, 2009


Review of Arthur Russell’s ‘World of Echo’ (1986, reissued 2004)

I can’t think of a record that changed the way I thought about sound and music–by being exactly what I’d always wanted to hear but never thought existed–more than ‘World of Echo,’ which I first heard around the summer of 2001.  The first album I heard was Phillip Glasses’ posthumous 1993 compilation ‘Another Thought,’ then the only thing in print, and that was love.  When I finally tracked down ‘World of Echo’–that was love forever.  And so it was a wonderful surprise and a joy when around 2004 many of his recordings began to be reissued (most by Steve Knutson at Audika Records) and more importantly, appreciated by many more people than ever heard his music in his lifetime.  Since then, a number of very good to revalatory reissues and compilations have been released, and I continue to be amazed as new facets of this sublime artist are revealed.  [Don’t miss, for example, the collaboration with Peter Zummo, “Song IV,” previously posted here at Musicophlia Daily.  And you can hear more Russell featured in mixes here, here, here, and here at Musicophilia.]

Here is a track not from ‘World of Echo,’ but appended on Audika’s 2004 reissue which seems to have been recently re-pressed–so please buy it!  This is one of the most heartbreaking, beautiful, true songs I’ve ever heard: “Our Last Night Together”

Beyond the “more…” link is a review I wrote for Localist Magazine around the 2004 reissue of the album.  I sent it to Audika’s Mr. Knutson, who passed it on to Arthur’s parents and partner; it was a moving moment when I heard back from Steve that they approved, and reportedly said I’d really gotten to the core of things.

Arthur Russell
‘World of Echo’
[1986; reissued Audika Records, 2004]

I am a proactive humanist; I don’t believe in religion or science as anything more than means to an end.  If I have a concept of ritual, of efficacious religious activity, it’s listening to and making music.   By this understanding, listening to ‘World of Echo’ is a genuinely religious experience.

Instead of trying to explain its power to friends, over the last few years I’ve copied it a dozen times and let it do its own proselytizing.  Miraculously, it’s been rescued from the land of hopelessly-out-of-print and reissued by Audika Records (who also released the nearly-as-brilliant record of unheard avant-Casio-hip-hop-pop, ‘Calling Out of Context,’ in early 2004) after a year of growing interest spurned in part by Soul Jazz’s ‘World of Arthur Russell’ compilation.  If you’ve only heard that disc, then you know Arthur Russell as an underground New York disco maestro via Dinosaur L, Loose Joints, Sleeping Bag Records, and his work with the likes of David Byrne and Jerry Harrison.  But Arthur was also a quiet gay kid from Iowa; a renowned classical and avant-garde cellist; an adherent at a Buddhist monastery in California; Ginsberg’s musical accompanyist; and a compatriot of Phillip Glass.  But beyond all that, he also recorded hundreds of hours of practically secret music that transcends any of his public personae, most of which he never felt the need to share with the world.  Of that more private Arthur Russell, ‘World of Echo’ is the central expression.

Elements of Arthur’s roles as disco auteur and composer-poet are apparent on ‘World of Echo’.  The record consists almost entirely of intimately microphoned voice and cello treated with dub echoes and twists that enhance the album’s feeling of being in the blood, wholly organic. The melodies recall the Russell’s serenely joyous keyboard lines from “Is It All Over My Face,” but most of the beats are implied rather than pronounced.  The cello sounds more like a living voice than a refined classical instrument, providing the heartbeat as much as the melody.  The album is meditative, but in a way that recalls West African kora playing; a classical raga; evensong at St. Paul’s; or a Javanese Gamelan piece played at quarter speed; more than any singer/songwriter confessional.  The interplay between Russell’s voice, his cello, and the expertly applied dub effects reminds me of nothing so much as Bill Evans, Scott LaFaro and Paul Motian on “Jade Visions”.  ‘World of Echo’ consists of identifiable “songs,” but Russell clearly thought more in terms of motifs and textures than traditional verse/chorus/verse arrangements.  Lyrics and melodies cycle through, but the pattern of how and when they appear is more akin to jazz than pop.  It may be Russell’s unassuming, full voice, sounding corporal and spiritual—somewhere between Curtis Mayfield, Percy Sledge, and Nick Drake—that gives the music such transcendent warmth and vitality.

There is the intoxication of a party: the dancing, the drugs, the flirting, the sex.  And then there is the more sobering intoxication which comes after all of that, if you’re lucky enough to be sleeping next to the one you love.  ‘World of Echo’ is intoxicating like the moments when you awake to find that she’s still there, when you realize she will be again tomorrow and after ten thousand tomorrows.  It is in this moment that life is clearest, when you know you are blessed.  In this moment of safety, you understand what could be lost if you take life for granted, and so you resolve to live fully rather than passively.  ‘World of Echo’ is an experience of an active peace, not a sterile absence of discord.  You can let it wash over you, and it is beautiful enough to simply soothe.  But if you can listen actively, it will reaffirm your faith that music is integral to being successfully human, and that the beauty of being human is worth all the trouble.  For me, that’s the hope music-as-religion can offer.


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  1. […] 14   [58:14]   Gamelan Semar Pegulingan Club – “Gambang” (1972) 15   [61:20]   Arthur Russell – “Our Last Night Together” […]

  2. […] Daily a few weeks in.  Already there have been over 40 tracks shared, numerous links, and even an original review.  There’s another feature I’d like to add– but in order to do so I’ll need […]

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