Belated props to 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.
: Music Features
, Entertainment, Music, Country Music, More