music monday

Music Monday: Arthur Russell

After a long hiatus I’m going to revive Music Monday on this blog. It’s a good icebreaker for the week!

I’ve been exploring the music of Arthur Russell over the last few months. I first heard of him when I heard a cover of his song “Get Around To It” on a solo album by Tracey Thorn, the voice of Everything But The Girl. A few months later, I heard his version and found some of his music on iTunes.

Russell was an unconventional singer/songwriter, with an unusual voice. During his early career he wrote several disco songs. “Tell You” was a song he wrote as part of a disco collaboration, Loose Joints.

In Russell’s music and his approach, I see (and hear) parallels to musicians and songwriters like Radiohead and Andrew Bird, especially in some of his later music – layers of sound and atmosphere that are catchy, and yet don’t exist within the boundaries of a three-and-a-half minute pop song. One of my favorites is “Make 1, 2.”

Russell was apparently a legend or sorts in New York – a closely guarded man who, when seen in public, was often listening to his own music so he could rework and tweak it. He may have been deep into disco music, but he was also a trained classical musician and tried to merge those worlds (much as Bird now does with rock/pop, violin and whistling).

Russell died in 1992 of AIDS, and it’s been in just the last few years that his work has been rediscovered. There’s a documentary of his life and work, Wild Combination, that I’m hoping to see soon. This is a trailer for the film:

The music is so intriguing and quirky and alive to me. And there’s something compelling about his life story, as well. There’s something very Beethoven-esque about music being both Russell’s joy as well as the thing that made him slightly mad.

Music Monday: Voices

Music has always been an addiction of mine, and I listen to artists from almost every genre and from every decade.

I’ve always been drawn to artists who had unique voices. Some people love the perfection that a vocal acrobat like, say, Celine Dion provides. But I like hearing an artist’s story in their voice – or at least glimmers of their personality.

Musicians (like bloggers, politicians and…well, everyone) are all WAY more interesting and compelling to me when they speak in their true voice.

Like Nina Simone. Nina’s unusually deep and husky voice is one of a kind. (The closest comparison I could make to a contemporary artist is Cee Lo Green.)

Then there’s Marianne Faithfull, one of my favorite artists. Her voice tells as strong of a story as any of her lyrics do.

Here’s Marianne in 1965, when she first came into the public eye, with “As Tears Go By”.

Marianne’s life after that song was filled with a lot of darkness and a lot of challenges – as well as enough heroin and hard drugs to sustain the GDP of an entire country. THIS is Marianne today – an astonishing difference.

I’ve just discovered an amazing artist named Bettye LaVette. She’s a well known soul/blues singer who in 1965 (the same year Marianne Faithfull’s first single came out) released her song “Let Me Down Easy.”

Her voice already had some edges to it even then, but it’s definitely changed with age. In 2008 she brought the house down at the Kennedy Center Honors singing a cover of the Who’s “Love Reign O’er Me.” What she does with this song is amazing.

There are some interesting and quirky voices coming through today’s music as well: Bjork, Joanna Newsom, Colin Meloy of the Decemberists to name just a few.

Whose voice really speaks to you?