Sheffield, NYC, Austin, and Oklahoma
In his irresistible lo-fi anthem "Cubs in Five," John Darnielle (aka The Mountain Goats) gleefully predicts that "Bill Gates will single-handedly spearhead the Heaven 17 revival."
Well, Bill's got help.
The new documentary Made in Sheffield (plexifilm) sheds light on a scene most of us never knew about - an ugly English industrial town that birthed an edgy world of electronic music. Strangely, this '70s scene's avant-garde players - epitomized by Cabaret Voltaire and Artery - gave way to some of the most accessible pop of the '80s - such as ABC, Heaven 17, and the Human League, who started off angsty, then regrouped and made "Don't You Want Me." The doc stops at the point where everything went mainstream, which is probably wise; it's more interesting to see how Sheffield compared to more famous musical hubs like the one in Manchester.
Over in Manhattan, a slightly better-known post-punk scene was brewing. One of its denizens, however, is still pretty obscure. The Nomi Song (Palm) aims to change that, telling the very strange story of Klaus Nomi, a German immigrant with an otherworldly falsetto and an even more bizarre persona. Nomi talked as if he were from Mars, and you have to think twice before dismissing the claim; his music is certainly an acquired taste, but his stage show, full of androgynous sci-fi costumes and impressive decor, and his brief life story are fascinating.
Of the many stars who followed Nomi's lead and invented strange pop personae, Kool Keith (aka Dr. Octagon, Dr. Dooom, and Black Elvis) is one of the most surreal. Unless you're absolutely obsessed with the rapper (I'm talking "what does he eat for breakfast" obsessed), avoid Keith's Global Enlightenment Part 1 (MVD), which is nothing more than a half-hour of some fanboys following him around with a camcorder, overhearing stuff so dull you'd think Black Elvis has forever lost his cool.
A better choice for hip-hop fans is Freestyle: The Art of Rhyme (Palm), which goes deeper into the rapper's art than even a lot of very fine docs do. The focus, obviously, is on those MCs who choose not to write out their rhymes ahead of time, linguistically blessed characters who can spin fluid meter off the top of their heads. There are some great performances caught on film here, and the filmmakers do a good job of putting it into historical context.
Speaking of history: It may have sat in a vault for three decades, but Brian Wilson's Smile now seems determined to expose itself in every possible venue, from concert halls to record albums to the two-DVD release just out from Rhino. The package includes one disc of live performances (and some solo-piano bonus tracks) and one that's a documentary about the fabled album's voyage from the post-Pet Sounds haze to today.
If your taste in multilayered studio wizardry runs less toward Brian Wilson and more to the Flaming Lips, Bradley Beesley's The Fearless Freaks (Shout Factory) is the documentary for you. Following Wayne Coyne and crew around their truly strange (and often lawless) Okie environs, it manages to sneak a lot of local color into a basically chronological history of the band.
Shout also has a pure-performance music DVD out this month: X: Live In Los Angeles is a glimpse of the '80s band circa 2004. Elsewhere, there's a trio of new Austin City Limits videos out from New West Records: The Live from Austin TX series now boasts entries from Son Volt, Lucinda Williams, and Richard Thompson. As with the previous batch, each disc offers much more music than actually made it onto the air.
Returning to Sheffield briefly - more specifically, to the roots of that town's scene: Everyone in the film acknowledges punk as the catalyst that enabled them to start bands, so it's nice that Shout has just released Julian Temple's The Great Rock 'N' Roll Swindle, the cult mockumentary starring the Sex Pistols. On the more restrained end of the spectrum, Plexifilm offers Moog, a fascinating look at the pioneer of electronic music without whom folks like Cabaret Voltaire might just have been beating tin cans. The film digs into the history and techniques behind Robert Moog's magical oscillators, and contains performances by everyone from the goofily showboating Keith Emerson to the exotically austere Stereolab. Who'd have guessed that, decades after Switched-On Bach, electronic music would have branched into so many different things, from bliphop to Yes to ABC's "The Look of Love"? •
By John DeFore