Single Review: Arthur Russell – The Boy With A Smile  


For any fans of Arthur Russell, good news is on the horizon. Audika Records and Rough Trade are set to release an album of as yet unpublished tracks by the late, great experimental cellist. The music is from his World of Echo era (circa 1986) – the album that brought him into the spotlight. 

The album’s full title is Picture of Bunny Rabbit (code only faster: crossing the line from vocal to instrumental and back). I’m not sure we needed the parenthesis, but at least we know what is in store for us; some vocals, some instruments, everything in between. 

Picture of Bunny Rabbit will be released on the 23rd June of this year. The single from the album, The Boy With A Smile, was released on Tuesday. The album is being released by Rough Trade (UK/EU), and Audika Record for North America. Audika has produced all but one of Russell’s albums since 2004, previously collaborating with Rough Trade for Love is Overtaking Me in 2008. 

Out of the nine tracks, five were given to Audika by Russell’s sister and mother. The other four were found in Russell’s extensive archives. Russell, who died of HIV-related illnesses in 1992, supposedly left over 1,000 unfinished, unpublished tapes. His most famous song, I Never Get Lonesome, from the album Iowa Dream, wasn’t released until 2019. He was famous for never being happy with a song, always returning and tinkering and changing something, never being able to stay away for long before he would return. 

Although never reaching huge fame or success in his lifetime, Russell has a strong following that is growing as more and more of his music is released. He lived in the East Village in New York City and was a prominent figure in Beat and post-Beat Generation New York, along with Patti Smith, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Jack Kerouac. Rumour has it that while he lived above Allen Ginsberg they became lovers. Russell would often accompany Ginsberg’s poetry recitals with music. They recorded Ballad of the Lights together in ‘77, with Russell’s then band, the Flying Hearts. Like most of Russell’s work, the track was unearthed by Audika Records, and released in 2016. Russell’s influence on music stretches far. The French experimental cellist Colleen is one of many who names Russell as an influence. Kanye West (when he was still cool) used a sample from Answers Me for his track 30 Hours. At one point he was even supposed to join Talking Heads, recording an acoustic version of Psycho Killer with them. It never came to pass, although they remained friends. 

Due to his constant tinkering with his tracks and experimenting with different sounds and techniques, his influence stretches through many genres, including disco, pop and new wave. It is hard to say what genre Russell plays in, as he seems to float weightlessly through acoustic rock, dance, bluegrass and hip-hop, like a sailor quietly discovering new lands and depositing his flag of peace there. 

Picture of Bunny Rabbit was written about a friend’s pet rabbit. It starts with Russell’s balladic voice whispering a tune out to his listeners, preceded by a mix of Oriental-themed cello strings (possibly a nod to his teacher, traditional Hindustani music legend Ali Akbar Khan) and what sounds like a saw wobbling gently. At around the halfway mark Russell’s harmonica and cello come into play more and the song picks up pace with the introduction of what sounds like a tabla. The song remains very slow and melodic throughout. If you like Arthur Russell, you will like this. We can only hope the rest of the album will deliver in the same beautiful way.

Photo: Tom Lee