Tabs Out | Arthur Russell – Sketches for World of Echo: June 25, 1984 Live at Ei

Arthur Russell –Sketches for World of Echo: June 25, 1984 Live at Ei

6.25.21 by Matty McPherson

I’ve been here for a year now, so pull up a chair and listen closely when I say that there’s an uncanny kinship between Mark Hollis’ self-titled, Panda Bear’s Young Prayer, and Arthur Russell’s World of Echo. Maybe, if you have heard any of these three albums before you noted those ways each split their acoustics between a wake service and a land beyond here. Gospel music… well, really spiritual music to keep things more general… defined by death and presented by way of hermitude. In my eyes, it constitutes a trilogy of sorts.

For all three artists, their epitaphical albums strike at strange moments. Young Prayer was released right as Animal Collective began a 5 album masterstroke including PB’s euphoric Person Pitch, an album literally overflowing with life; he recorded it in the room where his father died. Mark Hollis fulfilled a contractual obligation akin to a seven year itch, the final statement from a recluse that found a way to flatline any of Talk Talk’s grandeur to its sparsest. World of Echo was the only LP length Russell could actually release before dying of HIV/AIDS complications in 1992. Few albums walk that fine of a line, constructing epitaphic qualities with such grace and intimacy. It’s also all a non-tape trilogy, unfortunately.

Last November though, Audika Records shook up their usual practice, in the process . The label’s 17 years of Arthur Russell estate crate digging has never resulted in either a live performance or cassette release. That is until Sketches For World Of Echo: June 25, 1984 Live At Ei arrived subtly like a message in a bottle last November, killing two birds with one stone. If it sounds like a bootleg that’s too good to be true, then you must be out of your mind! 

In 1986, it was incredibly difficult to extrapolate just what the hell World of Echo sounds like. The album’s deceptive DIY set-up (one 18th century cello, a drum machine, a few effect pedals, and an inscrutable, fleeting voice) share similarities with Rough Trade labelmate Beat Happening at their most abrasive. Although to be fair, both artists were chasing after their own pop fantasies. Nowadays, this outsider pop feels both like a foreshadow of limitless ideas found across a spectrum of tape labels. Sketches for World of Echo thus, functions as crucial context to this novel plane of music. 

Like any good Arthur Russell reissue, it leaves you with a burst of queries to consider, as well as another round of unanswered inquisitions to follow through your own rabbit holes. For, on that June 1984 night, the idea of a World of Echo was coming off of one already aborted album (Corn); this performance carries with it the rollicking feeling of an open invitation, as Russell seeks to explore any and all conceptions of what this set-up could mend itself towards. Thus, the tracklist of this concert tape is legitimately brimming in a most serendipitous manner. On one hand are unreleased compositions that are welcome discoveries, such as the Side A opener “Churning Forest”. Here, Russell carves and cuts away with his glacial cello drone, until the monolithic sound is but a graceful hum. As a thirteen minute opener goes, it has all the sound of fireflies and a night at the swimming hole, a crystalline zone returned to the (previously unreleased) Side B closer, “Sunlit Water”.

On the other hand are sketches of tracks to come. “Let’s Go Swimming,” appears as a 6 minute pop voyage that duets between Russell’s falsetto and the brushing of strings against his cello, as “I Take This Time” turns up on Side B as a two minute murmury ballad; both tracks are the only songs to later appear on World of Echo and even on those renditions they feel elastic and open ended. For on the third hand, Russell performs a series of “Echo-ified” variants of tracks caught in a perpetual flux post-Corn. If you know your Russell, then hearing these cuts are bonafide treats. Case in point: “Make 1, 2” appears out of electroclash form, recalibrated into a spiky noise machine that bounces and twists as Russell’s falsetto (and adorable murmur) could sounds less concerned–after all, “he ain’t got no number”. Meanwhile, “They and Their Friends” appears even more “unintelligible,” its wall of sheer noise acting as an inscrutable deterrent towards others.

Yet, the Russell composition I have seemed to be most enamored with in the past half year has to be “Keeping Up.” The Another Thought variant was the only available version for decades, with its two voice melody and cello patterns enacting trance; for many, it may be the definitive take. Yet, Corn unveiled a chipper electropop squeaker that Russell is recalculating by the time of the Sketches concert. His cello playing is still featherweight, as his amp’s glistening feedback recedes. Focused around tantalizingly fleet chord movements that you could sail with, the emphasis then falls towards his simple, yet potent mantra, where his falsetto soars and glistens. When Russell comes close to the microphone and states, “You like it when they look at you; you like it when they can’t catch you…” a boundary collapses. Vocally, it’s not a departure from his “hushed yet serendipitous” style of delivery he excels at across the concert; yet, that lyric delivered in this manner seems to cut through the last 37 years of time. It felt like it could be meant for me, or anyone really; at the core of this song, amongst this concert is a boundless empathy. It was just decades beyond what he nor anyone who was coughing at the Ei could have realized. 

“Unlimited print edition” according to discogs user Knutboy, aka Scott Knutson of Audika Records, at the Arthur Russell bandcamp page. Go crazy!

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