First Listen: 'Master Mix: Red Hot + Arthur Russell'
Arthur Russell can be a vexing subject for tribute, for all the many reasons he was peculiar and unique. Few other expressive cellists have proven to be especially good with disco, as he was, and the same applies even more the other way around. Add his capacity — from the 1970s until his death in 1992 — for expressive synth-pop, free-flowing folk and even airs of country music, and the makings of a truly inimitable character are born.
Count it as a feat, then, that Master Mix: Red Hot + Arthur Russell pays tribute by throwing more at Russell's musical persona than a musical persona would seem suited to withstand. Assembled as a benefit for the Red Hot Organization's ongoing fight against AIDS (which counts Russell among its victims), the double-length collection gathers figures from indiedom and outsider-music circles of various kinds. José González starts stirringly with a spacey take on "This Is How We Walk On The Moon" that captures the wavering, quavering grain of Russell's singing voice while wandering through sonic flights of fancy that sound out-there and bizarre, but also totally natural. A haunting short bit by the mystical keyboard tickler Lonnie Holley follows before the mood shifts abruptly into one of disco exaltation, by way of Robyn's bright, joyful, intensely horn-strewn cover of "Tell You (Today)." That song was a Russell production from 1983 under his alias Loose Joints, and even better — certainly more shifty and idiosyncratic in ways Russell himself might have liked — is Hot Chip's rework of another disco highlight, "Go Bang" by Dinosaur L. It's awkward and gawky, all elbows and knees, and somehow all the more forceful and fortified as a result.
Softer songs share space evenly throughout, including an imaginative take on "Eli" by Rubblebucket + Nitemoves, Sam Amidon's quivering, vulnerable "Lucky Cloud" and Phosphorescent's stretched-out "You Can Make Me Feel Bad." Then it's time to dance again, through highlights like Blood Orange's "Is It All Over My Face + Tower Of Meaning," which features a suitably sloppy yet hypnotic groove, and Vega Intl.'s flashy, banging "Arm Around You." Many different kinds of takes on Russell turn up here, as well as different shows of sympathy for the ways he could make his music seem more musical than everything else going on around him. It was impressive in its time and place — downtown New York in the teeming '70s and '80s — and it's impressive that it could be invoked without losing much in translation.