Thursday, July 30, 2015

Some Thoughts On Some 33 1/3 Books

I like the ‘33 1/3’ books, the series in which each volume focuses on a ‘classic’ album. You can read them in about a couple of hours, they generally have some interesting facts or observations about their chosen album, and each one is written in quite a different style.

In some cases the authors are perhaps a little too over-the-top in their praise of the album and/or band, and sometimes they draw some very long bows in their interpretations. Still, if the authors weren’t such fans of their subjects perhaps the series wouldn’t be as interesting.

There isn’t a great deal of consensus about which the best books in the series are, which may be a bad or a good thing to a reader, depending on your point of view. (A Pitchfork writer recently picked these titles.) Here are some thoughts I have on the books I’ve read to date.

Carl Wilson’s Celine Dion’s ‘Let’s Talk About Love’ is the most acclaimed book in the series, and rightly so. For the type of author that typically writes for the ’33 1/3’ series, Celine’s album would be a long way from being considered a ‘classic’ album. And yet it sold more copies than most of the so-called ‘classic’ albums that have been covered in the series. Why? I’m not sure the book ever really gets to the answer, but it’s a strong reminder that, for most people, pop and rock history doesn’t revolve around those cult albums that sold less than a million copies.

Big Star’s ‘Radio City’ (Bruce Eaton) has interviews with most of the Big Star band members and associated personnel, which makes it about as close to a definitive history of the making of that album as you can get. Band leader Alex Chilton in particular is interviewed at length. Critics and fans often bemoan that Chilton and Big Star never hit the big time, but the second half of this book reveals that there was perhaps an element of what may be considered self-sabotage contributing to Chilton’s lack of success.

Oasis’ ‘Definitely Maybe’ (Alex Niven) is a bit wrong-headed to me, though I enjoyed reading it nonetheless. The author tries to argue that Oasis’ lyrics should be seen as political, or more specifically as insights into the lives and struggles of the working class. I’m happy to accept that Oasis’ working-class lives at that point did fill out some of the detail in the lyrics, but I doubt that Noel Gallagher had many political motives when he wrote this album – more likely he was just putting words together that sounded good.

Neutral Milk Hotel’s ‘In The Aeroplane Over The Sea’ (Kim Cooper) has been one of the more popular books in the series. It isn’t as remarkable as the sales made me thought, but it is certainly quite readable, and its lack of remarkability is actually interesting in itself. Neutral Milk Hotel is one of those bands that a fair amount of mystique has gathered around over the years, but this book brings their story back down to earth by depicting them as essentially just a band, albeit one with some excellent material, like hundreds of other bands littered across the United States.

Jeff Buckley’s ‘Grace’ (Daphne Brooks) is good, though it possibly suffers a little bit from hero-worship. I did like the fact that it was written by an African-American woman given my first inclination is to think that every book in this series is written by a forty-something white male typing next to his shelves of vinyl. This also plays into nicely into what I think is one of the better points in this book, which is that Buckley, in his cover versions, placed as much if not more emphasis on the works of female vocalists as the male guitar rock ‘canon’.

R.E.M.’s ‘Murmur’ (J. Niimi) is quite good. I didn’t realise drummer Bill Berry was such an important contributor to the early R.E.M. sound – portrayed here as at least an equal partner in the band’s decisions, if not more so. At the end of the book the author tries to transcribe what he thinks Michael Stipe’s often inscrutable lyrics may be.

Talking Heads’ ‘Fear Of Music’ is by Jonathan Lethem, who is the biggest name so far to write a book for the 33 1/3 series. That made me curious to read this, even though I didn’t know much about the album. For much of the book Lethem goes through the album track-by-track, and I listened to each track, often for the first time, as I came up to the relevant section. For me Lethem’s book did not stand out above the rest in terms of its quality or insight – Lethem is a novelist, not a music critic after all – but this still remains to me one of the most memorable books in the series. Passages like Lethem’s phonetic transcription of ‘I Zimbra’, and how the titles of ‘Life During Wartime’ and ‘Memories Can’t Wait’ stick out on the album track list remain ensconced in my mind. In this book Lethem recalls his experiences of when he first heard the ‘Fear Of Music’ album as a teenager, but mixes these in with his perspective of the album as an adult, though given that Lethem was probably a precocious kid it is sometimes difficult to tell which perspective is which.

Television’s ‘Marquee Moon’ (Bryan Waterman) is the longest title in the series to date, clocking it at over 200 pages. Not as much about the album ‘Marquee Moon’ (though it does go through the album track-by-track near the end) as about the whole history of the band, and a fair chunk of the New York punk scene as well, its scope leads to its relative lengthy page count yet it almost never dragged for me. One thing I kind of learned is that, despite not being overly successful, Television were, if this book is to be believed, basically the central band in the New York punk scene of the mid-‘70s. Another thing: they were pretty guys, basically the ‘70s equivalent of those mid-‘00s pretty indie boy bands that kind of irked me, which come to think of it were probably taking both their sound and look from Television.

Finally, My Bloody Valentine’s ‘Loveless’ (Mike McGonigal) had for me two interesting points about the making of this album. One, there is not as many guitars on the album as you may think (and a lot more vocals). Two, there is not as many band members on the album as you may think either.

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