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Arthur Russell: First Thought Best Thought

Arthur Russell: First Thought Best Thought

Release Date:2006

By Mark Richardson | Posted 5/31/2006

The recorded legacy of the late Arthur Russell grows more astonishing with each archival release, bringing his wide-ranging talents ever more sharply into focus. Russell was a left-field disco producer, cellist, bandleader, curator, singer/songwriter, and modern composer. His work was often out-of-print, unreleased, or merely rumor until the Audika label began lovingly compiling it in 2003. It’s taken people a while to get a handle on it all.

First Thought Best Thought collects some of Russell’s instrumental compositions written both before and after he discovered disco, flirted with joining Talking Heads, and formed a country-rock band with members of the Modern Lovers. While this is ostensibly his “serious music” period, Russell’s work in any form has an underlying tenderness streaked with nostalgia. Even the seven-part “Tower of Meaning”—a rather formal suite for strings and horns that moves through a series of rich chords with a careful deliberation—is imbued with warmth and beauty.

The two sections pulled from the long “Instrumentals” are First Thought’s real find. These pieces combine elements of different genres and eras to evoke the big-sky Americana of Russell’s Iowa birthplace, “the West” back when that meant the Great Plains. Russell writes melodies with a circular repetition drawn from minimalism for instruments popular since the days of John Philip Sousa (clarinet, saxophone, trombone) and lays them over a pop backbeat, complete with tambourine and shakers. Though recorded in Manhattan lofts during the city’s grimy mid-1970s economic and social nadir, these pieces beg to be played outdoors, someplace bright and airy, perhaps with a parade nearby. Russell had some dark years—he died of complications related to AIDS in 1992—but he also knew from joy.

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