It’s a little mind-boggling that the late Arthur Russell was able to create so many transcendent moments in varied genres while keeping his aesthetic essence intact.
Throughout his career, he valued constant experimentation and a willingness to wander. Songs often existed in multiple forms and were never considered complete. There’s often a gentleness, especially with his own high, tender voice, and an entrancing quality that can make minutes blissfully melt away.
Russell is perhaps best known for his disco material (released under various ensemble names, such as Dinosaur L and Loose Joints), but in the last decade, a wealth of reissues, compilations and tributes have come out, plus a feature-length documentary about Russell, spotlighting his diverse talent.
Just a few highlights include the stunning First Thought Best Thought (modern classical), the stark masterpiece World of Echo (solo cello/voice plus echo box), the off-kilter cowboy pop of Love Is Overtaking Me and the electronic dance music of Springfield and Calling Out of Context.
Corn is the latest compilation on Audika, concentrating on the years 1982 and 1983 with all tracks previously unreleased, although fans will recognize most of the songs in different manifestations.
For a point of comparison, Corn is closest sonically to Calling Out of Context and Springfield, with prominent drum machine beats, slightly distorted cello lines and flourishes from brass players, including frequent collaborator trombonist Peter Zummo, and hand percussionist Mustafa Ahmed.
Take for example “Keeping Up,” which was clean, meandering and distanced with backing vocals from Jennifer Warnes on the excellent Another Thought version, but here, it’s more snappy, upfront and immediate—this writer wouldn’t want to be without either version.
“Hiding Your Present From You” begins with an in-your-face, squealing, fuzzed-out cello, and the track takes its sweet time to casually fade in and out, adding echo-enhanced vocals and hypnotic, simple keyboard patterns.
For aficionados, Corn saves the best rarities for last: the unheard, World of Echo-style “They And Their Friends” and the positively strange and enveloping “Ocean Movie” with bubbling, gurgling synthetics. Audika has had a flawless track record so far, issuing Russell’s material with the care and attention it deserves, and Corn is no exception.
Bands such as Mr. Bungle and John Zorn’s Naked City frequently shifted gears violently, smashing one moment against another using completely different genres, tempi and moods, often many times within the same song.
The fascinating and entertaining Italian group Ou has a similarly exploratory spirit and willingness to juxtapose disparate motifs and languages, but unlike the aforementioned bands, it doesn’t try to be pointedly abrupt—it’s much more subtle than that, making transitions between dissimilar pieces sound like they make perfect sense.
Structurally, think more along the lines of the non-linear Citizen Kane or the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations” than, say, a surrealist cut-up poem. This method on Ou’s second album, Scrambled!, is deceptive: the proceedings are a lot more complicated than they might sound.
This is a good thing; there’s a tenderness and finesse that pervades the album, but there’s a rigor and spark when it’s needed, without sounding distractingly contrived.
It’s impossible to concisely describe the band’s style and do it justice, but the more spirited numbers can have a sort of circus-jazz style, with occasional infusions of funk, pop and various south-of-the-border rhythms.
The main creative force behind Ou is Sardinian trumpeter Ersilia Prosperi, who has assembled a talented crew of vocalists, who sing and harmonize in Italian, Sardinian, Spanish, Portuguese, French, Pygmy (!) and yes, English, and instrumentalists, including Seattle reedist Amy Denio of the Tiptons Sax Quartet.
It’s playful, gorgeous, quirky (especially on the goofy mouth-harp enhanced “I Like You”) and stirring, particularly when the instrumentalists get to demonstrate their soloing chops and bare their teeth.
One unsubtle way to get a reaction from someone is to throw eggs at him. However, for Ou (which means “egg” in Sardinian dialect), the preferred method is to slowly and thoughtfully cook up a batch of aural scrambled eggs (low heat, please) with international spices, so that the listener will have an equally passionate response, from the rich, luscious flavors.