New tribute LP illuminates Arthur Russell's unappreciated greatness
Covers are stubborn. For every magical Jimi Hendrix-“All Along the Watchtower” combination, hundreds of reinterpretations crash and burn. When Arcade Fire performed a new cover at every show on their Reflektor tour, for instance, they often fell short, because, well, even the Greatest Freakin’ Indie Band will struggle to nail iconic recordings by R.E.M. and Sam Cooke. Sometimes brilliance strikes, like on Cat Power’s The Covers Record, but tribute albums are frequently dull and all too often smack of washed-up stars trying to channel legends.
Considering these challenges, Master Mix: Red Hot + Arthur Russell, the new tribute dedicated to one of New York City’s most seminal (and unappreciated) musicians, is remarkable. Arthur Russell isn’t a household name, but this star-studded album could make listeners wonder why.
Russell lived his life in relative obscurity. After moving to New York in 1973, the native Iowan teamed with a who’s who of artists, including Allen Ginsberg, Philip Glass, and the Talking Heads, before he died from AIDS-related causes in 1992 at the age of 40. Russell, who was a trained cellist and composer with an expertise in Indian classical music, applied his skills to the thriving New York scene, crucially influencing the underground scene that connected disco with house and garage music. Though Russell lacks the notoriety of landscape-shifting titans like Bob Dylan and Nirvana, many artists consider his diverse catalog just as influential.
Russell’s understated influence, undeniable innovation, and untimely death, explain why Master Mix came about—and why it’s so damn good. His recordings are patently unique, but they’re not ubiquitous; whether imitating or reinventing, Master Mix’s cast didn’t have to fear the backlash commonly associated with performing well-known classics.
Both approaches work. Russell recorded “Go Bang”—a thumping precursor to modern artists like LCD Soundsystem and the Rapture—in 1982 with his frequent band of collaborators known as Dinosaur L. On Master Mix, alt-dancers Hot Chip update the track in a post-Murphy way, but without straying too far from the original. When vocalist Alexis Taylor sings “I want to see all my friends at once,” the New York dance lineage crystallizes.
Some artists, like folkie Phosphorescent, deviate more noticeably from Russell’s originals. In its first incarnation, “You Can Make Me Feel Bad” was a seething 90-second mass of drone and noise. Phosphorescent scrubs away the grime, floating his southern croon over a lightly-picked electric guitar and a tender nest of vocal harmonies. It shouldn’t work, but then again, Russell’s version shouldn’t have worked either.
Every artist on Master Mix injects these classics with their own styles, but the record never feels forced. Instead, it exposes just how many genres Russell influenced in his brief life. From indie weirdo Devendra Banhart to pop whiz Robyn to Arcade Fire’s own Richard Reed Parry, Master Mix is bold and eclectic.
The statement isn’t limited to Russell’s music. Since 1989, the Red Hot Organization has used pop culture to raise awareness for HIV/AIDS. Artists including Nirvana, Sonic Youth, and Pavement contributed to 1993’s No Alternative, and 2009’s Dark Was the Night featured the National, Dirty Projectors, Grizzly Bear, and many more. So, Master Mix transcends “Did these musicians pull it off?” territory and achieves heavier cultural importance.
But if anyone was wondering, they do pull it off. The result of a noble cause, Master Mix is an overdue tribute to a criminally underrated artist, and it’s executed masterfully to boot.