Keep The Lights On
In the last few years, there’s been growing interest in the fascinating work of the late cellist/composer/singer/songwriter Arthur Russell, thanks to the documentary Wild Combination, Tim Lawrence’s biography, and most importantly, archival releases on the Audika label, each made with incredible care and thought, in an attempt to classify Russell’s sometimes unclassifiable pieces. The release at hand is the soundtrack to the film Keep the Lights on, drawing from Russell’s Audika output, and for newcomers, it can serve as a roadmap for navigating parts of his incredibly diverse career.
The 2004 compilation The World of Arthur Russell on Soul Jazz, while excellent, focused primarily on Russell’s electronic/dance music facet, which is just briefly explored on Keep the Lights on, with the track “I Like You!” from the 2004 collection Calling Out of Context. Most of Keep the Lights on leans on the two releases World of Echo and Love Is Overtaking Me; the former is Russell’s stunning, singular 1986 album featuring just his vocals, his amplified cello, and an echo box, and the latter is a collection of Russell’s pop-oriented material with forays into cowboy campfire songs, one of which, “Goodbye Old Paint,” features a distinct (Asian) Indian influence with a tamboura drone and tabla beats.
The slowly moving selection from First Thought Best Thought, which documents Russell’s modern classical chamber pop side, is a puzzling one; this writer would have instead picked the moving, transcendental first track from “Instrumentals” Volume 2 to represent the genius of that side of Russell. Of particular interest to fans is the inclusion of the outstanding “Come to Life,” starting with a gentle ramble that weaves itself into a persuasive pop number. It’s not a best-of album, and the uninitiated can simply dive in with one of Audika’s previous releases, based on personal genre preferences; but for the timid who prefer a sort of appetizer sampler platter, it’ll do.
While true invention in music is rare nowadays, new takes on genre-mashing can be refreshing if done properly, and one notable and stimulating example is the album Affaires Étrangères from the Canadian percussionist Pierre-Guy Blanchard, a.k.a. Pacha, who draws musical experience from his travels to places including Beirut, Istanbul, and Serbia and frequent collaborations. The material on Affaires Étrangères (which appropriately means “foreign affairs” in French) was expertly home-recorded in 2009 and originally released as a small batch of CD-Rs; for its current manifestation, the music was re-sequenced and remastered, and it’s available both as a part of the new 3-vinyl-LP collection Musique Fragile 02 (alongside two other acts) and individually as a digital download.
Blanchard has managed to stake out his own fascinating territory, although a number of acts come to mind when listening to the largely instrumental Affaires Étrangères. The minimalist keyboard vamps evoke the duo Suicide , and the fluttering Middle Eastern twists may appeal to fans of Omar Souleyman’s modern Syrian music. The moments with wandering guitar melodies, played by Jérémie Roy who also contributes bass playing and tape loops, such as the track “Tunel,” bring to mind Sir Richard Bishop in northeast African mode, but not quite as surgically frenetic.
Being a percussionist, Blanchard has made the rhythms the backbone of the album, and the tracks “L’Aeroport De Charlo” and “Macedonian Mind” serve as an exciting, intriguing opening salvo. “La Gare De Podgorica” is marked with frantic hand drumming and ghostly atmospherics, including what sounds like a mysterious muted orchestra sample loop, while “Ankara” is busy yet not frazzled, featuring Omar Dewachi playing saz and oud, which are Turkish lutes. The album is solidly interesting and engaging, being an invigorating and sometimes enigmatic percussion-heavy contemporary imagining of east European and Middle Eastern music.