Over the weekend my copy of Tim Lawrence’s Hold On to Your Dreams: Arthur Russell and the Downtown Scene, 1973-1992 arrived. I had been otherwise engaged during the conference/book launch a couple weeks ago, much to my disappointment.
I started reading last night and had to force myself to stop and go to sleep at a reasonable hour. It’s hard to put down: a rich and personal narrative, much like Matt Wolf’s documentary about Russell, and also a rich tapestry of music history. The opening sections on Iowa and California set the stage for everything to follow by offering insight into a web of musical influences that swirled about Arthur during his formative years. The rest of the book promises to be a wide-ranging history of the many downtown scenes Russell stitched together in his work and via his influence, from his first recording sessions in New York (backing Ginsberg with Bob Dylan) to the underground disco scene to his time as curator at the Kitchen to his short-lived stint playing cello with Talking Heads. This is the material I wish had been more fully represented in Wolf’s Wild Combination, and I’m glad now to have Lawrence’s book now as an extensive and indispensable companion piece. Plus it’s the best guide I’ve yet encountered to the full range of downtown music in the 70s, something I’m thinking a lot about as I gear up to write about Television’s Marquee Moon.
The book blurb by Swedish lush-popster Jens Lekman made me finally sit down at the computer and buy the EP Four Songs by Arthur Russell, curated by Lekman a few years back. I’m sorry I took so long to get around to it. The four songs are uniformly great renditions that showcase Russell’s ability as a song-writer. Lekman and Joel Gibb (the frontman for the Canadian indie-pop ensemble Hidden Cameras) come closest to mimicking Russell’s own tone and vocal style; Vera November (formerly of Electrelane, one of my favorite bands of the 2000s) and Taken by Trees (Victoria Bergsman, formerly of the Concretes) put more original stamps on their arrangements, but all the tracks are equally beautiful.
Here are two takes on Lekman’s contribution. The first, directed by la Blogothèque, was named one of 2007’s best videos by Pitchfork, though I missed it at the time. The setting for the video reminds me of paintings by the young Brooklyn artist Ryan Mrozowski, whose work I hope to own before it’s completely out of my price range. The video is as disarmingly simple as Lekman’s arrangement for African thumb piano:
The other video for Lekman’s take on this song is, I think, even more intimate, thanks to repeated close-ups. And you get a better sense of the how the instrument works:
Here’s the Arthur Russell original (via an unofficial fan video). His ghostly cello playing somehow makes the song a little sadder, more ethereal, even though it has a faster tempo than Lekman’s cover:
If you’re like me and you can’t get enough of Arthur Russell — and I seriously can’t! — you’ll rejoice to learn that Chris Taylor, the multi-talented Grizzly Bear member (aren’t they all?) who oversaw production on last year’s phenomenal Russell compilation Love Is Overtaking Me, has just released another long-lost Russell track, “Come to Life,” as part of a split single with his side project, CANT. You can find the Russell song here; the CANT track here. Or you could be a good doobie and order the 7″ directly from Taylor’s Terrible Records.
“Come to Life” seems an especially apt song title for this particular moment in the ongoing Arthur Russell revival. More life! And more life for Russell’s extraordinary music. That’s what we want.