Matt Wolf: The Man Behind The New Arthur Russell Documentary

Wild Combination: A Portrait Of Arthur Russell is as apt a film title as you’ll find. Russell—an avant-garde composer, singer/songwriter, cellist and disco producer—was a gay, flannel-wearing converted Buddhist from Oskaloosa, Iowa. He collaborated with Allen Ginsberg, David Byrne and Phillip Glass, among many others, in a thriving New York City art scene in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Wild combination, indeed.

Russell died from AIDS in 1992 at age 40. His vast music catalog—he left behind thousands of tapes of partially finished songs—was largely overlooked until recently, when a series of reissues, compilations and tributes were welcomed by a new generation. After learning about Russell from a friend, New York-based filmmaker Matt Wolf felt an instant, visceral connection to his music before even hearing it. The seemingly contradictory character—the Iowa farm boy who becomes a Buddhist and downtown scenester—was fascinating.

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Where’s The Street Team?: The Blank Generation

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I’m so tired of hearing musicians whine about how long they’ve struggled, how long they’ve spent “in the van,” how long they’ve been on an independent label. Get yourself some famous parents and shut up. Nepotism is the key to getting to the top—or, at least, to somewhere between the middle and the bottom with the possibility of four seconds at a higher level. Being the progeny of a successful musician is a coupon for a one-album, one-option contract with a marginal record label. Not only does nepotism allow the artist to skip the “struggle” part of the process, another unnecessary requirement is “talent.”

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New Joy Division Documentary Released On DVD

Despite its title, Joy Division (now available on DVD) could’ve just as easily been titled Manchester. As we’re told in the film’s opening moments, this is a documentary about a city, not a pop band. Filmmaker Grant Gee, responsible for Radiohead’s 1998 tour doc Meeting People Is Easy, brings into focus the political and cultural revolution of a post-industrial British city and four young men who were looking for their place in the ruins.

To help with his informative chronological account of Joy Division and the genius of singer Ian Curtis, who hanged himself in 1980, Gee called upon just about every major player involved with the band, including surviving members Bernard Sumner, Peter Hook and Stephen Morris (otherwise known as three-fourths of New Order). Sumner says that he never liked listening to the band’s first record, 1979’s Unknown Pleasures, and that Manchester was so ugly, he never saw a tree until he was nine years old.

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Silver Jews: David Berman Lets In Light And Love

For a moment, sandwiched between soliloquies on art and artists, David Berman pauses. He looks around his Manhattan hotel room. He looks up, down and at Cassie, his wife and bandmate. And then, as you wait for his words just as you would in song, he begins again: “I always say things I don’t believe.”

It’s a cryptic-enough statement from a songwriter whose lyrical abracadabra and syntax have kept fans hungering for more since he first started putting them to tape on 1994 debut Starlite Walker. Under the Silver Jews moniker, Berman’s development as an artist—and as a human being—has taken turns too numerous to count. It was here in New York City that it all began, Berman having started the group in 1990 with college buddies and Pavement upstarts Stephen Malkmus and Bob Nastanovich.

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THE NOTWIST: The Devil, You + Me [Domino]

The Notwist’s last album, 2003’s Neon Golden, was irresistibly catchy and irretrievably downbeat. Both of those qualities are muted on The Devil, You + Me, the German combo’s long-in-the-making follow-up. Brothers Markus (guitar, voice) and Micha (bass) Acher, electronics wrangler Martin Grestchmann and new drummer Andreas Haberl have woven a 20-piece orchestra into an already rich sonic field in which electronic beats and dubby effects co-exist with crisp guitar pop. No single component dominates; instead, a parade of endlessly changing sound effects and synth tones keep some structurally simple songs interesting. Take “Gloomy,” whose Brazilian-flavored acous-tic-guitar chords burst out of a bit of static, then slowly gain presence behind Acher’s fuzz-coated voice and a Windex-clean synthesizer. Keyboards, loops and horns coalesce and recede while Acher’s earnest vocal reels out a paradoxically defiant lyric. Each song performs a similar trick, working elements in and out of the mix. The Devil, You + Me’s flaw lies in its presumption that you’ll be so taken with the sounds that you’ll wait around for the hooks to show up. Ultimately, they do, but if they were buses, you might’ve already hailed a cab by the time they arrive. [www.dominorecordco.com]

—Bill Meyer