Get around to it

Belated props to Arthur Russell
By RICHARD BECK  |  October 25, 2008


Film review: Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell
You would not guess, listening to his music, that Arthur Russell grew up in Oskaloosa, Iowa. In fact you might not guess that he came from anywhere. He spent almost his entire creative life in New York City as a dance-music producer, singer-songwriter, and avant-garde cellist before dying of AIDS in 1992. Russell’s exquisite, strange, watery records are not quite anxious or agitated, but they never settle down either. His was a kind of principled, half-voluntary homelessness.

Most of us will nod in earnest agreement at the suggestion that the artist and the art are different — though not entirely separate — things, but we don’t really mean it. We want the artist’s life to explain the artist’s output. Matt Wolf’s fine new documentary Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell, is, among other things, an effort to line up Russell with his music. It doesn’t quite make it. Russell’s friends and collaborators remember him as a gentle guy who was also very, very weird. He spent hours on the Staten Island Ferry listening to mixes of his own work. He was difficult to work with. He had trouble finishing things. One of the film’s interviewees suggests that the process of making was more important to Russell than the final product (I don’t buy it). None of this comes anywhere close to accounting for Russell’s music. The clips of Russell in performance or in the studio put all of Wolf’s evocative mood-making to shame.

Russell arrived in New York in 1973 and soon became musical director of the Kitchen, an avant-garde art space frequented by the likes of Philip Glass and Brian Eno. He didn’t really hit his stride until he started making dance records. He had a knack for pioneering. “Kiss Me Again” was the first disco single to be released on Sire Records, and “Is It All Over My Face” — yes, it is what you think it is — can claim both house and garage as not-too-distant descendants. He used all kinds of pseudonyms, releasing records as Indian Ocean, Dinosaur L, Killer Whale, and Loose Joints, to name a few. The last of those is attached to a more conventional dance track, “Tell You Today,” which is also one of his best. For four minutes, “Tell You Today” clatters along with cowbells, whistles, and a few brass players who have all kinds of trouble hitting the right notes. But with two crashing piano glissandos, everything congeals into a persuasive, funky four, and when Russell starts singing, his voice harmonizing with itself, you can feel a light go on somewhere. The track floats off three minutes later, basking in its own ravishing light.

1  |  2  |  3  |   next >
Related: Dancing with himself, Arthur Russell, Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell, More more >
  Topics: Music Features , Entertainment, Music, Country Music,  More more >
| More

Most Popular
Share this entry with Delicious
  •   PLUCK AND DETERMINATION  |  March 09, 2010
    People have always thought that Joanna Newsom was indulgent. At first, it was about her voice — the kind of nasal yelp that usually keeps a performer from getting on stage at all. Then, on her second album, it was about her vocabulary and her instrumentation.
  •   SONG OF HERSELF  |  August 05, 2009
    "Listen, I will go on record saying I love Feist, I love Neko Case. I love that music. But that shit's easy listening for the twentysomethings. It fucking is. It's not hard to listen to any of that stuff."
  •   DJ QUIK AND KURUPT | BLAQKOUT  |  June 15, 2009
    LA hip-hop has two threads, and DJ Quik pulls both of them. The first is g-funk, a production style that relies on deep, open grooves and an endless parade of funk samples.
  •   FLIPPER | LOVE  |  May 26, 2009
    Flipper formed in San Francisco in 1979, and they're remembered three decades later because of a song called "Sex Bomb" that's one of the funniest pieces of music I've ever heard.
    There were not one but two clarinets on stage at the Somerville Theatre on Tuesday night, and that gives you some idea of how intricate Annie Clark's chamber-pop compositions can be.

 See all articles by: RICHARD BECK