Legend has it that when Arthur Russell submitted his demos to Warner Bros in 1979, the tapes were rejected by a junior A&R executive with the critical note, "This guy's in trouble." As for his vocals and a general synopsis of his music he wrote, "Who knows what this guy is up to. You figure it out." What Russell was up to with his prolific and multi-faceted music was so far ahead of his time that he would die before being widely recognized as an innovator and a visionary by new generations of fans. Russell died from AIDS-related illness in 1992 at age 40 and spent his short life tirelessly pursuing songwriting and composition that would embrace avant-garde tendencies, radio pop, disco grooves, modern classical, and more. He left behind an impressive official discography and a truly staggering number of demos, home recordings, and other unreleased material. Iowa Dream is a collection of some of these tracks, focusing on demos made for Mercury Records in 1974, but including work from the early '70s until 1985. The collection follows a similar flow to 2008's excellent, country-tinged Love Is Overtaking Me, which also collected unreleased tracks. Russell's work from the early '70s aimed for the commercial success of Jackson Browne, James Taylor, Carole King, and other singer/songwriters that were dominating the charts. Songs like "Wonder Boy," "Everybody Everybody," and the tender piano ballad "You Are My Love" all tend toward this straightforward singer/songwriter vein. Some of the same country-folk twang that shone through on Love Is Overtaking Me continues in the traditionally modeled "I Wish I Had a Brother" and "I Never Get Lonesome." Though it doesn't move chronologically, Iowa Dream does an excellent job of illustrating Russell's hyperactive and genre-bending muse. Experimental tendencies show up on the spoken group vocals and frenetic horn arrangements of "Barefoot in New York," and his solitary post-disco production side comes through on mid-'80s songs like the Talking Heads-ish "List of Boys" and the wobbly filtered bassline of "You Did It Yourself." The rowdy title track begins with vocalizations of farm animals before launching into peppy pop made up of spirited cello, Farfisa organ, and zooming drum fills. The 19 tracks here are all over the place, true to form for Russell and his ever-expanding inspirations. These demos never landed him a major-label contract, but it's hard to imagine what a major label of the mid-'70s or early '80s would have done with music this far ahead of the curve. For all the fans who discovered Russell after his passing, collections like Iowa Dream are bittersweet time capsules, holding new evidence of his one-of-a-kind talents that still occupy a space all their own, even when unearthed decades later.
AllMusic Review by Fred Thomas