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Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Unravelling the Mystery of Arthur Russell's "Lost" Album, CORN

Charles Arthur Russell

I first heard the name Arthur Russell mentioned in an interview with Animal Collective, referencing inspirations for Merriwether Post Pavilion. One night in the summer of 2013, a social media friend sent me link to an Arthur Russell mp3 discography, which I downloaded and listened to over the succeeding months and years. (I should add that I have since purchased a legit lossless copy of every release available.) For a music geek like me, the discovery of Arthur Russell was a life-changing event; the beginning of many years of obsession.

Arthur Russell is a romantic figure; the frustrated artist or tragic genius, like Van Gogh, who allegedly never sold a painting, Orson Welles or Brian Wilson, who both had commercial aspirations, but had their most ambitious work rejected by their business partners. This unique, multi-faceted artist, a cello player, lived and worked in the then-center of the artistic universe in lower Manhattan; "downtown". His work cut across many genres, and was difficult to market. It failed to find a commercially viable audience in his own lifetime, which was cut short by AIDS. Russell died in 1992, leaving a prodigious body of unreleased recorded music, that, as attested by the posthumous releases, is uniformly brilliant. It’s rich, emotional music, with the full spectrum of life and being expressed and explored with absolute artistic authenticity. Russell’s songs are as deep as the ocean. The singing and cello playing are so nuanced and idiosyncratic, the sound so richly detailed and original, so startling in its’ complexity, that Arthur Russell has no peer in all of popular music. The music was so far out that even in 2015, it is avant garde, and anticipated many of the developments since, including shoegaze and dream pop, much of the dance music of the interval, and even DIY and chillwave.

This week Audika Records, the licensed conduit for the estate of Russell, released Corn, the first set of unreleased Russell recordings to emerge from the vault in seven years. Corn was originally conceived as Arthur's solo debut – the first record released under his name, and has been one of the major  mysteries of his extensive body of work until now. The album consists of  Russell’s own songs, his voice and unique amplified cello interacting with heavy and spare electronic beats, and percussion from Mustafa Ahmed, and Peter Zummo’s and Rik Albani's respective trombone and trumpet. There is a unified production approach, a sort of earthy electro. The tracks seem to belong to a set, though many have noted the demo-like sound quality of the recordings. Steven Hall, close friend and frequent collaborator states flatly, “Arthur would not have released most of those tracks. They were demos.”  

So is this 2015 Corn the unreleased album from 1985, or not? Turns out the answer to that question, like everything involving Russell, is too complex to yield to the simple either-or frame of that question.

Tom Lee's artwork for CORN

From Tim Lawrence's insightful biography of Arthur, Hold On To Your Dreams
"During late 1984 and 1985, Russell recorded approximately twenty tracks for his solo album, and having struggled to find a final version, presented the results on three separate test pressings."
The pressings were all titled Corn but the artist was labeled as El Dinosaur, Indian Ocean and Untitled, respectively. Lawrence’s book gives a track list; “See My Brother, He’s Jumping Out”, The Deer in the Forest – Part I”, “Hiding Your Present from You”, “Calling Out of Context”, “The Platform on the Ocean”,  “You Have Did the Right Thing When You Put That Skylight In”, ‘The Deer in the Forest – Part II”, “Keeping Up”, “Corn”, “They and Their Friends”, and “I Like You”, but doesn’t make clear which of the three versions this represented.

Russell submitted the material to his business partner in the Sleeping Bag Records dance label, Will Socolov. The label’s first release had been the hit “Go Bang! #5”, by Dinosaur L, “produced by Arthur Russell and Will Socolov”, and a commercially successful follow-up had yet to be delivered up by Arthur. Socolov deemed the Corn tracks too strange to be a viable release, and this rejection seems to mark the beginning of the end of their partnership. 

These newly released recordings were made between the 1982 Dinosaur L album and 1983's Tower of Meaning and Loose Joints "Tell You (Today)", according to the press release by Audika. So, are these newly released versions the material that was on the 1985 test pressings? Or was it the more finished versions of “Calling Out of Context”, “The Platform on the Ocean”, “I Like You”, that were eventually released on the 2004 Calling Out of Context compilation?  "Lucky Cloud", “Keeping Up” and “This Is How We Walk on the Moon”, released on Another Thought, sound finished, softened, and unlike the spare, hard tracks of the 2015 Corn. "You Have Did the Right Thing When You Put That Skylight In" is absent, but already was released on Springfield. "They and Their Friends" and "Hiding Your Present from You", and “See My Brother, He’s Jumping Out”, however, sound similar to  the versions released on Let's Go Swimming and Springfield, although we are assured by the notes that “all tracks previously unreleased”. But if you thought you’ve heard Corn because you know these songs, you’d be very wrong.

The tracks on the new release were compiled by Steve Knutson of Audika; “The sequence and track selection are mine and mine alone, except for one deletion by Tom." (The still-missing  track "The Deer in the Forest - Part II"?)
Although it would be nice to know exactly what the contents of those test pressings were, the finished 1985 Corn album is probably a myth. It’s likely that Russell himself never resolved on a final version, and the test pressings were for Arthur’s own use. The failure to finish Corn ultimately has more to do with Arthur than Socolov.  
Again, from Hold On To Your Dreams: "“Arthur wasn’t happy with anything he did, so he ended up with all these alternate mixes of the same thing,” notes the Sleeping Bag boss. “He would EQ things a million times and then he would ask me to listen to the tapes. There were times when I could distinguish between them, but I didn’t know what was better, and he just went on and on,” Socolov says Arthur “went crazy” over his recordings." 
Mustafa Ahmed, told author Tim Lawrence, “I worked for hours on tracks but never got the sense we were finished, because of his constant editing. Anyone who collaborated with Arthur would tell you this was the most frustrating aspect about working with him…. He was never satisfied.”
As late as 1989 Arthur was still re-working some of these same songs, for an album he promised to Rough Trade and never delivered (some of this is on Calling Out of Context), tentatively titled 1-800-Dinosaur.


'Corn' was a theme of Russell’s,  a connection to his roots in  small town, agrarian Iowa. There is "In the Corn Belt", from 24→24 Music, and he posed for iconic photos in a corn field, and with a John Deere tractor, which later graced the covers of Love Is Overtaking Me and Springfield. There are two versions of "Corn" on the new album, making sense of the title of the previously released "Corn #3".   

There is parallel aquatic theme in Russell's work, that acts as in compliment to ‘corn’. Arthur populated his song with water images. "Let's Go Swimming", "Platform on the Ocean", "Ocean Movie", “Little Lost”,  That’s Us / Wild Combination”, the artist names Indian Ocean and Killer Whale -- all convey a nautical theme.  

Maybe it’s more appropriate to think in terms of a 'Corn period' rather than a Corn album. It's a snapshot - a picture of a phase of Arthur's continually developing work. I do not think of these tracks as demos, which a term of derogation. I'd like to think it sounds exactly like Arthur intended. The quality and content of these recordings should not be compared to conventional commercial recordings.

The sound of Corn 2015 is raw and minimal. Some of the songs share musical passages; "Corn" falls into "Keeping Up" nicely, and it's easy to imagine that might have been intended. "Corn (Continued)” shares beats with "The Platform on the Ocean", and may have morphed into that track by 1985. In this incarnation it's a 10 minute workout of noisy, grinding jam, that is as close to hard rock as Russell would ever get; a worthy follow-up to Dinosaur L's chaotic "Get Set". The new "Lucky Cloud" may be the best of all. It sounds more 'finished' than some of the other tracks, Arthur's cello's "feedback harmonies" cresting in a blissful waves of carefully controlled noise. It's easy to imagine this might have been a hit had it enjoyed proper support and promotion.  
"This Is How We Walk on the Moon" is one of Corn’s best tracks, and contains (like many of Russell's recordings) passages of indescribably nasty funk that only lasts for a few bars, making it ripe for a new edit. This version is by no means inferior to the other versions of one of Arthur’s very best songs. The metronomic snare and melodic cello lock into a groove that is danceable, to which is added the trashiest dirty synth sound imaginable, and the “slurry” (as Lawrence aptly terms it) of trumpet and trombone. The same dirty synth shows up in “I Like You”. “See My Brother, He’s Jumping Out (Let’s Go Swimming #2) ” is  a succeeding version of the song of the same name on Springfield, tagged "Let's Go Swimming #1". This track does not appear to be a remix but an entirely different recording of the song, which would continue evolving and eventually be released as a single in 1986. This Corn version features tremendous percussive assaults and intense rhythmic thrust. Whether it's the album Arthur intended or not, the sequencing and selections could hardly work better than they do. Corn is a gem that will delight fans  and lure  new listeners into strange world of Arthur Russell.

The failure to release Corn in its' own time left the seeds of these remarkable songs in Arthur's fertile soil, and they continued to grow and develop under his nurturing protection. These multiple versions should not be thought of as remixes, or even re-recordings, but as variations on a theme, such as in classical music, each being a distinct work.  This obsessive-compulsive, quixotic reworking resulted in a greater body of work being left than we otherwise would have. Russell's bizarre working methods and overall approach to his art call into question the very nature of 'finishing' a work of art, of 'releasing', and even of the concept of audience.  No doubt he had commercial aspirations, but ultimately, made this music for himself. It is the businessmen of the world who are preoccupied with 'releasing', and whatever drove  Arthur, it wasn't money.  

"Some sort of unconscious state seemed to govern Arthur. As he went about his work, he set aside the constraints of everyday reality...He followed his ear in order to live out an ambition that evoked a sublime chaos of the inner psyche -- or a dream  that resembled a dream," writes Tim Lawrence.

He managed to absorb all these impersonal genres, modern classical/minimalist, avant-rock/new wave and disco, dub, hardly known for lyrics or authenticity of personal artistic expression (disco was a lot of things, but individual artistic expression, it was not), and then produce a fusion that was as deeply personal and genuine and authentic as the original American blues. 

The songs and recordings have a life of their own. A new generation of musicians is discovering Russell, and his influence is being felt everywhere in the avant garde of the internet  new music  community.  It's what the world needs, it's love. It's art. It's the best music I have ever heard.
Arthur was a Buddhist, and didn't believe in a heaven, but it's tempting to imagine this angel looking down on us with satisfaction, that his beautiful music is finally being recognized as the work of a genius. I hope to eventually hear every scrap of music he recorded.

Photos courtesy of Audika. Much of this was drawn from Hold On To Your Dreams by Tim Lawrence 2009 Duke University Press. Highly recommended. The film Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell is essential viewing. Thanks to Steve Knutson, Mustafa Ahmed, and Steven Hall for background.



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  2. Thank you for this! Glad that the internet has held space for it.