Arthur Russell from Wild Combination

Wild Combination: An Intro to Arthur Russell

Motion Picture Soundtrack is a biweekly column that explores the soundtracks of music documentaries and biopics. Using songs featured in each respective film or series, the column offers readers a primer on artists and bands worth loving, revisiting, and discovering anew. This week, we look at Matt Wolf’s tender and absorbing Wild Combination and it’s central subject, the ever-eclectic Arthur Russell.

Glossolalia is a religious phenomenon wherein a worshipper defers to The Spirit, is taken over by “it,” and begins speaking in tongues. The words that come out are made up, nonsensical, understood only by the speaker and whatever greater power they are communicating with.

Arthur Russell’s discography contains a similar spiritual aura. Bridging the gap between pop and avant-garde, Russell’s music carries with it a sense of mystery, something otherworldly. It’s an enigma, dark and sensual, propulsive and hushed, bombastic and introspective. It can send people into a spinning reverie on the dance floor, or keep them hidden in bedrooms—headphones on, eyes closed, blissed out and silent. His influence on art is unshakeable (unlike my butt when his disco tracks start playing. That’s right. Disco. You’ll see…).

Russell started off performing folksy songs strummed on acoustic guitars and echoing Nick Drake and unplugged Modern Lovers, a band he loved. His main instrument was the cello, which he tried playing on a Talking Heads song. It’s kind of amazing. It stayed unreleased until 2013 (the story of his all-too-brief life). He kept acquaintances in artistic places, surrounding himself with bohemians, poets, and musicians, including Ernie Brooks from the aforementioned Modern Lovers, Bob Blank, Philip Glass, and Allen Ginsberg, a friend and collaborator who eulogized Russell after the musician passed away in 1992.

At times, you can practically feel the wind blow through Russell’s pulsating chords. There is a melancholy permeating his music, and even at its most transcendent and liberating, it contains an underlying tension. It’s not sad, but rather internal. There is melody and seriousness, but it’s never dour or tragic. Melodramatic, sure, but never saccharine or insincere. His music isn’t always easy to embrace. Some of it is impenetrable, strange, so fragile and minimal that you feel it will crumble when it strikes your eardrum. Conversely, there is his clubland alter-ego, Dinosaur L, which can be categorized, for the most part, as Abstract Disco. It is awesome.

Repetition, at its worst, can symbolize stasis, stagnation, but in Arthur Russell’s hands, repetition becomes hypnotic, his cello churning and popping out passages simultaneously sustained and rhythmic. Sometimes, he played it like a drum set, slapping the wood to fill in the gaps between notes. Other times, the notes are distorted, crushing, metallic. Versatility was his forte, and sometimes he played that way.

Wild Combination (2008), Matt Wolf’s gentle, almost breezy portrait of Russell, is not always entirely flattering to its central subject. Russell’s ability and talent clashed with his temperament, and he was a notoriously difficult collaborator. He had indiscretions, paranoia, and was confrontational with those closest to him. Wolf interviews Russell’s family members, his partner Tom Lee (who is responsible for the unearthing of many of Russell’s unreleased-but-now-released recordings), and his colleagues, who are, for the most part, unflinching in their recollection of the musician. This is essential for a figure as meticulous and as paradoxical as Arthur Russell, and I appreciate the film’s duality; good or bad, he is presented untouched and true. He was a contradiction, a Gemini, a wild combination.

Much of the music in the film comes from three of Russell’s albums: World of Echo (1986), and the posthumously released compilations, Calling Out Of Context (2004) and Love Is Overtaking Me (2008). World of Echo is beyond essential, but here, I’ve tried to pick tracks and albums that demonstrate Russell’s eclecticism and experimentation, so that listeners can fully appreciate his versatility as both a composer and a performer.

Arthur Russell’s music is a safety net for me. It lulls me, delights me, frightens me at times. It makes me listen—really listen—to every intricate sound and silence. Today would have been his 70th birthday. Do yourself a favour: listen to his music, watch the film, and celebrate.


THE PLAYLIST


THE ALBUMS

For the come up

Arthur Russell – Another Thought (2006, CD) - Discogs

Another Thought (1994)

For the ~*PARTY*~

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24->24 Music (2007)

For the come down…

Arthur Russell: Iowa Dream Album Review | Pitchfork

Iowa Dream (2019)


THE SONGS

“You Did It Yourself” from Iowa Dream (2019)

Early in Wild Combination, we are presented with a young Arthur Russell playing through an unplugged rendition of “You Did It Yourself.” The black-and-white clip shows a shaggy, folksy-looking Russell sitting on a chair in an unadorned room, playing the song on an acoustic guitar. He never makes eye contact with the camera, choosing instead to look off screen at something (or someone) as he sings the song’s contemplative words about young romance and cinema. The song itself, in a full-band iteration, finally appeared in 2019 on Iowa Dream, a collection of genre-hopping “demos,” some of which sound better than most bands’ final mixes. The unique bass sound—played through an auto-filter pedal—sounds like a thin slat of sheet metal shaking in the Midwestern wind. Its liquid-like warble envelops the track, transporting us through time and space to a small-town movie theatre where the ending doesn’t even begin to tell the whole story. It’s an apt choice for an introduction.

“Calling All Kids” from Calling Out of Context (2004)

How do you judge a song’s influence if every subsequent song by every band who would have been influenced by this song came out before the song was ever actually released to the public? (Yeesh…what a conundrum!) “Calling All Kids” is just such a track. Kept in storage until the mid-2000s, this trip-hoppy, asymmetrical composition features a diabolical cello part, keyboards that range from “sublime” to “disturbing,” and Russell’s treated vocals, which coo as much as they sloganeer (slog-and-sneer, perhaps?). If “Calling All Kids” had been released when it was recorded, it would be considered one of the most influential songs ever produced. This is not hyperbole: I honestly believe that this is true. The fact that it was left hidden until 2004 is a musical tragedy. Fragments of its DNA can be heard in Bjork, Massive Attack, and Radiohead, to the point where you wonder, did they hear this???? I think they felt it, knew it was out there, heard it in their dreams. They must have…right?

“Answers Me” from World of Echo (1986)

Like all great lyricists, Russell used enigmas and explicits in equal measure, taking metaphors to absurdist breaking points while saying “l need you” in language as plain as, well, that! Sampled two decades later by both Kanye West and ROSALÍA, “Answers Me” is a surreal lullaby that uses a baby lion, sailing, and the abstraction of words themselves to signal departure, loss, and failure. Possibly. Russell’s intentions are endlessly interpretable and debatable, which makes their exalted delivery all the more poignant. At the end, the track clips sharply, unexpectedly, a tried and true Russellism, and yet, you feel like you’re still hearing Russell’s repeated call to his lover, his confidante (“…answer me”), even after the words have stopped. He’s done waiting for an answer, and leaves it to the listener to respond however they see fit. There’s no telling how you’ll decipher the words, or how Russell wanted us to decipher them, and my own thought process changes with every listen. I hear something different, feel something different, and this is why Russell’s music is a gift. A beautiful, reciprocal, exasperating gift.

“#5 Go Bang (Francois K Mix)” from 24 → 24 Music: The Definitive Arthur Russell (2007, originally released as a 12” single in 1982)

Russell’s music wasn’t all breathy vocals and cello minimalism. He made dance music. Amazing, abstract, exhilarating dance music. In 1982, disco was still huge, and Russell’s bombastic tracks sparkled with Balearic exuberance long before Ibiza was on anyone’s Ecstasy-fuelled radar. If this doesn’t get you moving, dancing, and grooving, you don’t like beats. Or fun. Or music. The vocalists wanna go bang (ba-bang bang BAAAAANG!!), and GAWDDAMN, do I ever wanna join ’em! The song even ends on an unfinished thought (“I wanna…”), clearly leaving things open for a sequel. There is power in the crisp snare, the hi-hat shimmering like a golden curtain caught in a downtown breeze. Russell’s “bedroom production”-touch is all over the track (even the horns have echo!), there are atonal keyboards somehow keeping things in place, and the bass line…I mean…just LISTEN to that bass line. It’s symphonic house! Russell thought the drums weren’t strong enough, too muddy. He’s got his opinions, I have mine. I love it, James Murphy obviously does, too, and so will you. Welcome to Summer 2021: it’s time to get funky.

“See-Through” from World of Echo (1986)

There is something undoubtedly aquatic about Arthur Russell’s music; it can be murky, sedimentary, dark. And yet, you feel like you can float in the sound, his rich voice trailing from a distance, vibrating through the bubbles. Russell owned a giant fish tank and spent a lot of time listening to the gurgle of the water as it filtered itself, which influenced the production of some of his songs. This ambiance is called “oceanic” in the film, and it’s a very apt comparison. “See-Through” contains all of the cryptic essence of the deep. Programmed drums pop, electronic blips crumble in the distance, and like the tide, the song retreats as quickly as it arrived, leaving you teetering. Just press play again, and find your footing.

“Planted a Thought” from Love is Overtaking Me (2008)

“Planted a Thought” is a bridge between Russell’s two most dominant approaches: the electronic and the bowed. As motorik drums and Feelies-esque guitars hold us steady throughout, Russell’s cello playing is loose, teetering precariously between melodic and dissonant. Every squeal and screech threatens to careen us off the edge, but when we get to the cello-heavy bridge (see?!), Russell interrupts the lyrics mid-stride to let his cello speak. His playing settles, still driving but calmer, more relaxed, the section rising ever so slightly through to the last set of lyrics, which jump right back in: “There’s a symbol of what could happen,” Russell sings, before adding “Oh what we wanted to happen.” The contrast in the lyrics, much like the music itself, is deliberate: it may take a while, but sometimes, we end up exactly where, and with whom, we always knew we would.

“She’s the Star/I’ll Take This Time” from World of Echo (1986)

Russell’s music was rarely aggressive, but this two-part, five-minute mini-epic (hyphens!) features some of his most bitter self-evaluation, particularly in the icy second half. “She’s the Star” opens the proceedings with a short diatribe about a girl who makes her friends “feel too wild,” and who Russell thinks “gives too much.” What she gives away is intentionally ambiguous, offering the listener a chance for projection, for self-exorcism: sex, drugs, time, feelings, it can be anything that you, at the moment, either think you’re giving up, or that you think you should be giving up. The two “pieces” are connected by a short lyrical coda, which ends abruptly, before “I’ll Take This Time” introduces itself with a smacked cello pounding with distortion and reverb. Russell seems to have been unfaithful, and his plea for forgiveness is counterbalanced by the cello’s reckoning: it won’t forgive him, its crushing tone reflecting his mental anguish. Russel’s singing is sublime, floating over the cello, as if trying to mask the dissonance he feels inside. At one point, he sings the word “energy,” splitting the syllables and taking all the power out of the song’s most commanding word. He runs out of breath at the most inopportune time, which he takes for his own, and when the song ends just as abruptly as the coda, it feels as if Russell leaves himself to our mercy. He’s said all he needs to say, all he can say, and leaves it to you to judge him. Take your time.

“Ballad of the Lights” feat. Allen Ginsberg (10″ single released 2010)

“Ballad of the Lights” was originally recorded in the ’70s, but it didn’t see a proper release until 2010. While most of the track is structured around a droning cello and Ginsberg’s poetry, I’ve included it here because of its contrasting spoken (Ginsberg) and unspoken (Russell) passages, and its unapologetically pop sensibilities. Its second half is awash in melody and peace, owing as much to The Velvet Underground as it does to La Monte Young. If you’re a fan of the Beats, you’ll love it (and probably love most of it, even if you’re not), but whatever your opinion of Kerouac and Co. (meh…), the track is endlessly listenable, pretty as all hell and pretentious to the stars and back. It’s uplifting melody, meditative lyrics, and references to New York make it an apt elegy for a changing city, and so, regardless of your poetic proclivities, I urge you to take a listen.

“Love is Overtaking Me” from Love is Overtaking Me (2008)

Arthur Russel has the uncanny ability to make repetition sound dynamic. This is not always the case with minimalist compositions, and as such, it’s how I got into minimalism (clearly the most pretentious sentence I will ever write). On “Love is Overtaking Me,” what could have been a simple, mid-tempo love song bounces along on strange inflections and echo. A jangly, gently-strummed acoustic guitar is complemented by hollow percussion, including congas. When Russell sings “I know it seems like we just met, oh, but it’s so different now,” a lifetime of affection passes through the words, Russell trying to contain all of his bursting affection through his nonchalant delivery. It works, and we explode inside with him.

“That’s Us/Wild Combination” from Calling Out of Context (2004)

Arthur Russell wrote a lot of love songs, and he had a knack for mixing juxtaposed sounds with unbridled sincerity. “That’s Us/Wild Combination,” from which the film takes its name, is one of Russell’s most overt pleas to the art of settling down. Over driving, programmed drums—which give the track its feeling of an early-morning chill—Russell coos out his desires, all of which are innocent, child-like even: talking in the dark, a walk, a swim. All-nighters at Studio 54 these are not. When Russell sings “I can’t wait to see you another minute,” it makes you feel like you are reading letters between close-distance lovers: they sleep in the same bed, but every moment apart, including sleep, feels like a wasted opportunity. Guest vocalist Jennifer Warnes beautifully complements Russell’s wavering cadence with her higher register, and when everything drops out at the end, leaving Russell’s treated vocals and keyboards as the sole witnesses to a 5am wakeup before a trip, you realize we are privy to something Russell holds dear. It is intimate, unadorned, naked. It is Arthur Russell encapsulated. And it is perfection.

*BONUS “TRACK”* “Tower of Meaning” from Tower of Meaning (1983)

Arthur Russell wasn’t simply a “songwriter,” he was a composer, and this becomes quite evident once you delve deeper into his diverse back catalogue. From country and folk to disco bangers, his relentless exploration of musical forms reflected both his upbringing in Iowa, and his subsequent exodus to New York. Tower of Meaning is his greatest oddity, a minimalist orchestral piece commissioned by Robert Wilson for his operatic reimagining of Medea. Russell and Wilson clashed throughout the process, with Russell’s glacial working pace infuriating Wilson. Russell was fired, and his score was used only once. What’s left is a 45-minute reference released in 1983 on Phillip Glass’s label, Chatham Square Productions. Next to World of Echo, it is the only other full-length album released while Russell was still alive. I consider this “album” to be one long “piece,” so I’m including it here as a track because it exemplifies not only Russell’s range, but dedication to a singular project. He was a notoriously slow worker, a perfectionist who could never see things through to their completion, and this what-could-have-been moment in his career is worth getting lost in for its grandeur and audacious vulnerability.

Wild Combination is now streaming on The Criterion Channel.

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