Most of these 33 1/3 reviews were originally published on The Fiddleback‘s blog while I was the music editor there. Now that The ‘Back is closing up shop, for at least a little while, if not longer, I thought I’d start archiving the old entries over here, and posting new ones, as well.
In their original forms, these capsule reviews were published in groups of five, which were sometimes themed. As such, the reviews never followed the published order of the series. Each set of reviews also had a brief introduction, but I thought for ease of archiving, I’d just publish the actual reviews in series order. Also, I’ll add new capsules as I write them. Reviews reprinted from The Fiddleback will be marked with an asterisk. Finally, these reviews aren’t meant to go into too much depth, but to provide some guidance for folks interested in exploring the 33 1/3 series, and who might be a bit overwhelmed, or not know where to start.
#1 | Dusty Springfield’s Dusty in Memphis | Warren Zanes*
Sometimes I wonder if Warren Zanes had any idea, when writing his volume on Dusty in Memphis, the first volume in the 33 1/3 series, that eight years later, the series would be eighty-odd volumes deep and growing. Even if he didn’t, Zanes’ volume feels like a primer for the series, drawing on personal anecdotes, cultural studies, and straight-forward music journalism to tell the story of Dusty in Memphis. Zanes’ blending of these approaches is fairly seamless and largely effective as each is driven by an interest in the mystery and romance of the American South. The series has certainly produced some stronger volumes over the years, but Dusty in Memphis was a perfect beginning to what has become an impressive and influential series of books.
#2 | Love’s Forever Changes | Andrew Hultkrans*
Arthur Lee’s slide into mental illness is one of pop music’s weirdest, most haunted stories about a genius who went off the rails. Current audiences might not recognize Lee’s name—hell, they might not have even heard of Love or Forever Changes with Brian Wilson and Phil Spector hogging all the press—but Lee’s story, especially as depicted here by Andrew Hultkrans, is mysterious and vital. Hultkrans focuses his volume on Forever Changes primarily through a lens of Lee’s instabilities—his paranoia, his interest in prophecies of his own doom, etc…—all the while tying those insecurities in to the dark undercurrents of failed optimism that took root and grew in the late sixties and into the seventies. Hultkrans’ prose is tight and easy as he draws on historical context and song analyses in arguing that the descent of Lee and the decline of sixties idealism were inextricably linked—that Lee’s eerie old mansion in the Hollywood hills and state of mind served as a fitting analog to the national dread that took over the American imagination as peace and love were replaced by race riots, Charles Manson, and Altamont. Hultkrans’ volume was one of the first 33 1/3 books I read, and the book’s focused, measured argument and meticulous and empathetic eye for detail set the bar incredibly high for future volumes.
#3 | Neil Young’s Harvest | Sam Inglis
Sam Inglis’ take on Harvest is a bit hard to pin down. The volume opens with an engaging discussion of the critical reaction to Harvest, then turns into a discussion of the album’s context within Young’s career. For the book’s first half, Inglis does a fine job of exploring the tension between the album’s lukewarm critical reception and its status as Young’s most popular work. But then something strange happens—Inglis’s argument runs out of steam and the book devolves into a rambling and unfocused song-by-song re-telling of Harvest. Inglis makes some interesting observations through this section, but none of it adds up to anything, a point which is only heightened in the following sections, which detail “The Personnel” and “Harvest on CD and DVD-Audio.” While Inglis’s volume starts strong, it also seems to be the first instance of a 33 1/3 author not having as much to say as maybe he initially thought, and in this instance, the book certainly suffers for it.
#4 | The Kinks’ …Are The Village Green Preservation Society | Andy Miller*
Miller’s reading of The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society manages to pull of the rare feat of presenting itself as both a conventional rock book, and as a thoughtful, focused analysis of its subject. The book is broken into three clear sections and an epilogue: the first, “The Boy Next Door, Only Better” tells the story of The Kinks leading up to the creation of TVGPS; the second, “The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society” is a song-by-song analysis of the album; and the third, “Pictures in the Sand,” extends the song-by-song treatment to outtakes from the TVGPS sessions. This sounds a little safe and boring on the surface, but by focusing the first section on The Kinks’ underdog status and perceived failures, and by focusing the second and third on the album’s dual interests in nostalgia and satirizing British culture, Miller’s volume constructs a compelling portrait of Ray Davies as a stubborn and complicated artist caught between an ache for an impossible past and his frustration with the stale trappings of tradition and national identity that he saw as pervasive in England’s 1960’s.
#5 | The Smiths’ Meat is Murder | Joe Pernice*
Joe Pernice’s Meat is Murder must have come as something of a surprise to early readers of the 33 1/3 series. After four fairly conventional books of history and/or criticism, Pernice, of the band The Pernice Brothers, wrote a work of fiction about Meat is Murder. The story is set in the 80’s, around the time Meat is Murder was released, and tells a story about a young man’s coming of age. The volume does a fine job of defining its universe (80’s high school), and populating it with amusing but one-note characters. As a work of fiction, Pernice’s Meat is Murder doesn’t get much traction beyond its foundation—the prose is unexceptional and the low-key narrative trends toward teenage navel gazing. The book wants to be a Catcher in the Rye or Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture, and it works as a riff on that genre, but that’s all the book manages as a work of fiction. As a rock book, however, Pernice’s volume fairs a bit better. By inhabiting the world Pernice has created we feel as if we are also inhabiting Meat is Murder itself, and that is a lovely thing.
#6 | Pink Floyd’s The Piper at the Gates of Dawn | John Cavanagh*
Cavanagh’s volume on Pink Floyd’s first album is conventionally journalistic in nature. The volume includes loads of quotes from interviews Cavanagh conducted with folks who have been a part of Floyd’s story since the early days, including Nick Mason, Storm Thorgerson, and Peter Jenner. And, while Cavanagh teases some interesting material out of these folks, the end result is dry as the volume privileges information to style or argument. That is to say, Cavanagh doesn’t really have much to say about Piper, but he does a fine job compiling attitudes and anecdotes from anyone who would talk to him. The material is interesting, but the journalistic approach feels a bit uninspired compared to so many of the other books in the 33 1/3 series that make thoughtful, searching inquiry their foundation. I do appreciate Cavanagh’s restraint in not turning this volume into “another book about ‘mad Syd,’” while still including quotes from Peter Jenner and Kevin Ayers—Jenner is quoted as saying, “It was Syd’s album,” and Ayers, “There was something magical, but it was all in Syd Barrett”—to illustrate just how important “mad Syd” was to Pink Floyd’s beginnings, and this wonderful album.
#7 | Abba’s Gold | Elisabeth Vincentelli*
Writing a book about Abba for a series that, at the time, seemed to be focused solely on canonical rock albums, couldn’t have been an easy task. Likewise, writing a book about a greatest hits album must have bordered on the unthinkable. That said, Elizabeth Vincentelli opens her discussion of Abba’s Gold with a knowing, entertaining acknowledgement of both of these potentially “controversial” elements of her book. Though what follows, at times, lapses into a predictable, formulaic reading of Gold—for each song, in order of original album appearance, we get recording history, interesting bits of band history, a description of each song’s Lasse Hallström video clip, etc…—Vincentelli has done a pretty good job of making Abba interesting. By consistently returning to the central questions of Abba’s place in history and Gold’s place in the pop canon, Vincentelli’s book manages to be both focused and interesting, even if some of the details read a bit dry.
#8 | Jimi Hendrix Experience’s Electric Ladyland | John Perry
John Perry’s brief bio on the back of his volume about Electric Ladyland is probably the briefest bio of any 33 1/3 author: “John Perry is a guitarist and writer. He lives in London.” The listing of guitarist above author is telling. Perry’s volume begins promisingly with historical accounts that illuminate the construction of the Hendrix myth. In this section of the book, John Perry the writer is present and accounted for as the descriptions are vivid and his firsthand accounts of Hendrix shows he attended are fascinating. This lasts for approximately the book’s first half. The second half, however, takes us into the studio for a track-by-track “making of.” Here, John Perry the writer is put on ice and John Perry the guitar player takes over. What follows is an excruciating account of chords, techniques, and gear, with snippets of analysis and interpersonal drama tossed in for good measure. Whether or not Perry’s volume is worthwhile is really a question of audience—this second half of the book might be fascinating, useful even, for studio technicians and guitar players, but it doesn’t seem to be written for those interested in the cultural study of pop music, so much as it is written for those guitar players and gear heads. If that’s your thing, this might be the perfect 33 1/3 volume for you. Unfortunately, that isn’t what I generally look for in a 33 1/3 book.
#9 | Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures | Chris Ott
Joy Division is a tough band for rock critics. Their music is interesting, both on its own and in relation to the other noise and punk bands of their era, but it’s so easy to get caught up in the Ian Curtis myth. Though Ott’s book is basically a straight-forward history of Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures told through studio logs, reports of live performances, and a decent amount of research, I appreciated it for the author’s ability to keep the Curtis drama at bay through most of his reportage. When Ott finally gives in and decides to write about Curtis’ suicide (in the second to last chapter, “His Very Flight is Presence in Disguise”), the treatment is rational and workman-like. In other words, Ott manages to buck the trend and tell us about Joy Division and Ian Curtis without sensationalizing either. The flip-side of Ott’s restraint is that this volume reads a bit dry at times, but even that dryness is refreshing after years of writers and fans romanticizing Curtis’ demise.
#10 | Prince’s Sign ‘O’ the Times | Michaelangelo Matos*
Michaelangelo Matos’ volume on Sign ‘O’ the Times does a fine job of balancing the author’s personal investment in an album he grew up with, with an in-depth analysis of Prince and his landmark album. Matos’ strong prose and knack for generating empathy (the opening narrative of how a young Matos came to own Sign ‘O’ the Times is sharp and endearing) makes his book one of the rare 33 1/3 entries in which the author’s personal stories surrounding an album overshadow the obligatory history and analysis. In fact, were it not for Matos’ use of personal narrative this volume would be a fairly standard piece of rock criticism. And, while all that history and analysis can read a bit dry, it ultimately holds up, especially when Matos exercises his pop culture expertise to contextualize Prince’s music. When this analysis is bolstered by Matos’ autobiographical details, the result is a smart, engaging reading of one of Prince’s finest moments.
#11 | The Velvet Underground & Nico’s The Velvet Undergronud & Nico | Joe Harvard
Joe Harvard’s history and analysis of The Velvet Underground & Nico’s seminal album is a fairly safe, straightforward affair. Harvard divides his volume into three parts—“The Setting,” “The Songs,” and “The Aftermath”—then trots out the expected content for each section. While the description sounds a bit uninspiring, and while the book doesn’t do anything particularly exciting or fresh, Harvard does a pretty solid job of writing a detailed introductory text to The Velvet Underground & Nico. Long time fans of the Velvets won’t find much new here, but Harvard brings the familiar together in a useful, and focused manner, peppering each of the three main sections with shorter subsections focusing on a single question or element of the album. At its best, Harvard’s volume digs into some interesting conversations surrounding the album—whether or not the album was truly recorded “live”; where some of the album’s key sessions took place, etc…—and offers some top-notch analysis, as in his discussion of “Heroin.” Most of the time, though, Harvard’s approach is workmanlike and unexceptional, a good enough volume that functions as interesting liner notes to one of the best, most important albums of all time.
#12 | The Beatles’ Let it Be | Steve Matteo
Without looking this up, I suspect that The Beatles have had more written about them than any other musician or band, ever. As such, Steve Matteo’s volume on Let it Be feels a bit redundant. Sure, Matteo does a nice job of compressing the events surrounding the Get Back/Let it Be project into a tight, little book, but it’s a book without any revelations or meaningful insights. It’s useful as a primer to The Beatles’ final years, but not once in the reading of Matteo’s volume did I stop and say, “Huh, I never knew that before,” or “Now, that’s interesting.” Matteo doesn’t even try to provide his own angle or read on Let it Be, relying instead on a documentary approach that doesn’t transcend or transform anything. If you don’t know much about The Beatles and were curious about Let it Be and the band’s demise, I’d recommend Matteo’s book because it does a nice job of providing an abridged history of the end of The Beatles, but fans of the Fab Four won’t find anything here that they haven’t read in a hundred other places. Ultimately, while Matteo’s book is “good enough,” it is also, in a word, unnecessary.
#13 | James Brown’s Live at the Apollo | Douglas Wolk*
Douglas Wolk’s volume on Live at the Apollo is one of my very favorite entries in the 33 1/3 series. If you’ve ever encountered Wolk’s work on pop culture, be it about music, comics, or anything else, you already know that he’s got serious writing chops. Case in point: his book on Live at the Apollo is primarily a walkthrough of Brown’s Apollo Theatre performance from which this classic album was culled, but in the process of describing that night with his electric prose, Wolk digresses to explore Brown’s past and future, song and band backgrounds, and the cultural and political climate during the week of the famous gig. While some of the book’s context can be a bit trivial, like the brief section titled, “What They Were Stocking Up On in the Record Stores,” many of Wolk’s “in the moment” digressions deal with the tense, final act of the Cuban Missile Crisis, which was unfolding on the same day and night as Brown’s Apollo performance. There’s no real reason to connect the two other than to describe that moment in time, to understand what was happening in the world around James Brown when he and his band played that gig and made this legendary album. The result is stunning and, after reading Wolk’s volume, I can’t listen to Live at the Apollo without considering the political tensions running parallel, but seemingly worlds apart from James Brown’s brilliant performance.
#14 | Jethro Tull’s Aqualung | Allan Moore
First—this Allan Moore is not that Alan Moore. I wanted to clear that up. This Allan Moore is, according to the bio on the back of his book on Aqualung, a professor of Popular Music and department head at the University of Surrey. As such, it’s not really surprising that Moore’s volume on Aqualung is a detailed “close reading” of Jethro Tull’s classic album. Unlike Dai Griffiths’ book on OK Computer, which close-read Radiohead to death but never used the data for anything insightful, Moore leverages his close readings to explore some of Aqualung‘s themes and motifs, including religion, national identity, and trains. On an idea level, then, Moore’s volume is quite interesting. Unfortunately, Moore’s prose wasn’t quite sharp enough to carry me through his sometimes excruciatingly detailed readings of Aqualung’s songs. By the end of Moore’s volume, I found myself feeling as if I’d read a book for which I was not the intended audience. Moore’s Aqualung was clearly a volume intended for the serious musicologist. Still, with as serious and detailed as Moore’s analysis is, it’s hard to take him that seriously when he says things like, “Of contemporary live recordings, only Grand Funk Railroad seems to come near [the] majesty [of Jethro Tull, live in 1970]” (74), or cites newsgroup postings from 2001 to make arguments about fan attitudes towards Jethro Tull’s music. These odd moments don’t necessarily undermine Moore’ credibility, but they certainly make the author seem a little out of touch with contemporary conversations about rock and pop music.
#15 | Radiohead’s OK Computer | Dai Griffiths*
First, an admission—I kind of feel like OK Computer is overrated. I still think it’s a top shelf album, but I’ve never understood the “BEST ALBUM OF THE 90’S” rep the album has ended up with. In fact, there are at least ten albums from the 90’s I prefer, and which are arguably just as, if not more influential. I bring this up because Dai Griffiths’ 33 1/3 volume on OK Computer seems to (I say seems to, because the author appears to be terrified of making any actual arguments about the album) be primarily interested in providing a close, formal reading of the album’s music, undercutting the album’s importance in the process. That being I said, I’d like to be clear: I didn’t not like this book because of any value judgment imposed by Griffiths on Radiohead’s album, I dislike the book because it’s boring and doesn’t really have anything to say. Griffiths opens his volume with an engaging discussion of the “CD Album,” and some brief discussion of rock criticism and canon making, two ideas that deserve some attention. But Griffiths’ middle section, which makes up most of the volume, is a turgid close reading of OK Computer. Griffiths makes many astute observations and thoroughly describes how the album sounds and works, but he never provides any insight or analysis into why the album works, what its workings mean, or even why we should care about how the album works. Griffiths’ close reading is nothing more than a detailed summary. If this doesn’t sound thrilling, that’s because it isn’t. The closest Griffiths gets to saying anything interesting about OK Computer comes in the book’s final section, which explores the album’s future legacy, described by the author as “a focal point for historians” who might want to know “what 1997 felt like.” To this end, Griffiths reduces the album to only its most important songs, which he decides are “tracks six-eight. Pushed for time?—track seven.” I suspect this has been a popular volume in the 33 1/3 series because, RADIOHEAD. I only hope readers who came to the series through Griffiths’ volume weren’t so disappointed by the dull summaries and elitist attitude that they didn’t try out any of the series’ other fantastic titles.
#16 | The Replacements’ Let it Be | Colin Meloy*
As far as I can tell, Colin Meloy’s 33 1/3 book about The Replacements’ Let it Be is one of the more popular entries in the series. This probably has as much to do with the fact that the book is less academic—it’s a memoir, or maybe fiction, it’s not exactly clear—as that it was written by lead Decemberist Colin Meloy. Written by Meloy when the series was still young, and before The Decemberists had gone from fun to exhausting, the book is a quick and easy read that infuses the author’s experiences growing up in Montana with the type of rock and roll heart that comes from growing up listening to the Mats. Meloy does a nice job of capturing the pop atmosphere of the 80’s, describing familiar scenes of watching 120 minutes with the volume low, interactions with metal kids whose religious parents have thrown out their tapes, being turned on to boatloads of music by a hip older relative, and playing in a made-up cover band without real instruments. In these moments of interaction between the young Meloy and pop culture, Let it Be is a smashing success. Where Meloy’s volume falters, however, is in the details of his young life. Meloy seems so intent on making his book universal that the day-to-day experiences of his youth come across as generic—there are mean jocks and embarrassing sports moments and stuck-up popular kids, and etc… etc… In these moments, the book frustrates through its familiar generalities, especially when Meloy devotes entire sections to mundane events from his life just so he can tell us that, at the end of the day he listened to Let it Be and fought back tears. That being said, the fresh parts of Meloy’s story make this book worth reading.
#17 | Led Zeppelin’s | Erik Davis*
As much as many of us have a special place in our hearts for Led Zeppelin, I think most of us also recognize that the band was involved with some pretty silly shit. Erik Davis sets out to explore that silly shit (which he more respectfully refers to as magic and myth), in an attempt to understand how Zeppelin’s iconic album still generated an aura even in the age of mechanical reproduction (did I mention Davis brings Walter Benjamin along for the ride?). Davis’s examination of Zep’s magic is smart and funny. He never gives into the mysticism, but examines the meanings generated within and by that mysticism. Some of the volume’s highlights involve Davis’ responses to the notorious tome, Fallen Angel, by Thomas Friend, a born-again religious zealot and reformed Zeppelin fan, who decided that the band was satanic. Davis’ dry interactions with some of Friends’ assumptions and interpretations provide this somewhat scholarly volume with some nice laughs. Davis missteps a bit by tracing the journey of a made-up protagonist named Percy over the course of ’s songs, but that’s easy to forgive with prose this sharp and entertaining. Case in point: “Sure [Led Zeppelin’s music] was cock rock, but it was also a mystery, wrapped in an enigma, stuffed into a cock” (8).
#18 | The Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main St. | Bill Janovitz*
To Janovitz’s credit, there are a number of compelling ideas scattered throughout this volume. He touches on the importance of soul and gospel music to the Stones’ seminal album, briefly explores cultural myths about rock stars and America, and touches on Altamont and the end of the sixties. Unfortunately, these compelling ideas are more asides and afterthoughts in a volume that is largely given over to detailed descriptions of the sounds that comprise Exile, and the who/what/where/when /why/how of their recording. Fans interested in a thoroughly researched, musically literate (Janovitz was a key member of Buffalo Tom) description and history of Exile on Main St. won’t be disappointed. Readers looking for more of a focused reading of the album, however, might want to look elsewhere. Janovitz loses a few additional points for making reference to Raymond Carver’s novels. Oops.
#19 | The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds | Jim Fusilli*
Man, I’m pretty sick of Baby Boomers, and their insistence on the greatness of their generation’s popular culture. Because of that, I’m pretty sure I should hate Fusilli’s personal love letter to Pet Sounds. But dammit, Fusilli’s blending of album-lore, Beach Boys history, and plenty of heartbreaking details about Brian Wilson’s life with his own personal enthusiasm for the album makes this volume damn near infectious. By deftly bringing these threads together, Fusilli makes a strong case for Pet Sounds as not just a great coming of age album, but as an album for outsiders who feel too much, trying to come to terms with a cold, hurtful world.
#20 | Ramones’ Ramones | Nicholas Rombes
Drawing on Cultural Studies and punk history, Rombes delivers one of the smartest, most incisive books in the 33 1/3 series. In the process of examining the Ramones’ development as a band and their relationship with popular culture and artifice, Rombes challenges a number of misconceptions about punk and provides a strong theoretical foundation for reading punk that only partially rejects the quaint notion that punk’s origins were entirely altruistic. The Ramones may have been in it for the money and fame, Rombes points out, but they were also reacting against the burdensome legacy of 60’s hippies, while presenting an avant-garde project exploring the iconography of pop. In comparing Ramones to 60’s Godard films, Rombe argues that the album “incessantly interrogates the formulation of its own sound,” before ultimately stating that “punk is as much a theory of music as it is music” (49). Rombe’s volume is academic but accessible and utterly engaging. The prose style waivers a bit in the book’s final quarter, but all in all, Rombe’s takes on Ramones is a fine volume that does a great deal of work in a very limited space (106 pages!).
#21 | Elvis Costello and the Attractions’ Armed Forces | Franklin Bruno
Franklin Bruno’s Armed Forces is a bit strange. The book is put together as a glossary of sorts, with each section focusing on a song, band member, idea, lyric, or whatever Bruno felt was important enough to make the cut. The volume’s first entry is for “abbreviations,” and, true to its name, lays out some key abbreviations that the author uses throughout the text. Other less obvious entries (because, c’mon, we know each song will have its own entry), include “Agora Ballroom,” where Costello played the night of his infamous altercation with members of Stephen Stills’ band, the “British Union of Fascists,” “Emotional Fascism,” which was to be the original title of Armed Forces, and simply, “X,” which begins as such: “If ‘Two Little Hitlers’ is the barbershop scene from The Great Dictator, “What’s So Funny [(About Peace, Love, and Understanding)] is that films ‘Sequence X.’ This was the production’s internal name for Chaplin’s final speech” (144). As the above might suggest, despite the book’s disjointed nature, Bruno does a fine job of exploring a number of threads surrounding the album’s creation and themes, finding, perhaps, his biggest successes through examinations of Costello’s treatment of race and politics across the album.
#22 | R.E.M.’s Murmur | J. Niimi*
Let’s get this out of the way fast: R.E.M. are my favorite band of all time. Murmur is my second favorite of their albums. Expectations were high for J. Niimi’s volume on the album. Thankfully, the book is pretty good. Where the book flounders a bit is its first half, a fairly straight-forward band and album history that concludes with a track-by-track. Here, Niimi is retreading a boatload of territory that is largely taken for granted by R.E.M. fans. To this poin, Niimi’s volume on Murmur isn’t very exciting. But then, right around the book’s middle, Niimi shifts gears, tells us about his first encounter with Murmur, then launches into an engaging exploration of how Murmur fits into Southern culture by emphasizing the album’s gothic and romantic elements. Finally, in the volume’s closing chapter, Niimi offers a fascinating analysis of Michael Stipe’s lyrics/vocalizations on Murmur. This last chapter celebrates the mood and mystery evoked by Stipe’s ominous mumble, and explores the relevance of Stipe’s attempts to de-emphasize first person singular pronouns in his early lyrics. Despite this volume’s slow start, Niimi’s second half comeback treats Murmur in ways that are both fresh and interesting, bringing some new ideas to the conversations surrounding R.E.M. and their first LP.
#23 | Jeff Buckley’s Grace | Daphne A. Brooks*
Brooks’ approach to Jeff Buckley’s Grace is damn-near perfect. The author begins with a bit of memoir, explaining what initially drew her to Buckley’s work, then launches into a thorough investigation of the various social, cultural, and personal forces that influenced Buckley’s career. Brooks’ examination of how Buckley’s work blurred boundaries of race and gender, drawing on Buckley’s influences and many of the songs he covered as evidence, is particularly interesting, as are the sections dealing with Buckley’s limited relationship with his famous father. Along the way, Brooks couches all of this in a lovely series of what almost read like mini-essays examining the early days of Buckley’s career, his legendary live performances, and the recording of Grace. After his surprising death in 1997, Jeff Buckley has taken on a great deal of mystique. One of the things I appreciate about Brooks’ book is that she is invested in exploring the mystique of Buckley as a grand romantic, not Buckley’s mystique as a dead rock star. In addressing Buckley’s mystique, Brooks relies a bit heavily on hyperbole, but that’s part of this book’s charm—it is an intellectual treatment of Buckley’s career and music, but it was written by someone whose sincere and earnest love for Buckley and his music makes its presence known on every page.
#24 | DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing… | Eliot Wilder*
Eliot Wilder’s volume on DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing… is a fresh entry in the 33 1/3 series. Rather than attempting to provide historical context for or analyze DJ Shadow’s classic album, Wilder simply talked to DJ Shadow (AKA Josh Davis), transcribed their conversations, wrote a brief, rambling, and somewhat baffling introduction (including the author’s personal history as a music fan, a discussion of “The White Album,” and a brief but bizarre discussion of postmodernism), then shipped the manuscript off to the editors. While I certainly miss the strong authorial presence that we find in many 33 1/3 volumes, Wilder’s interview with Davis is weirdly refreshing—instead of trying to situate Endtroducing… into a moment or context, and instead of crafting a narrative about the album’s development, Wilder lets Davis reflect on his own development as an artist and his creative process. Davis doesn’t tell us anything earth shattering or surprising about himself or his music, but I found myself pulled in by his openness and, as a result, I have to commend Wilder for recognizing that sometimes its best for an author to just get out of the way of his subject. Endtroducting…isn’t quite top-shelf 33 1/3, but it shows the series’ flexibility and willingness to try new forms—and, of course, in this case, the experiment was reasonably successful.
#25 | MC5’s Kick Out the Jams | Don McLeese*
Don McLeese opens his volume on Kick Out the Jams with a riveting account of the events leading up to the 1968 DNC, and his own trip to Chicago the week of that convention. This is, of course, the setting for McLeese’s first encounter with the MC5. McLeese sets the perfect tone in his opening chapter, tapping into the weird, wary politics of the late sixties and early seventies, and setting the stage for a book that does a solid job of exploring the absurd chaos and half-baked politics that MC5 so thoroughly embodied. At times, McLeese lapses a bit too heavily into nostalgia (ie, “I can still see the orb-like Afro of the lead singer as he badgered the crowd, pointing his finger, thrusting his fist”), but all in all, he does a fine job of keeping one eye on the wild and bat-shit rise and fall of the MC5, and the other on how Kick Out the Jams fit into that arc.
#26 | David Bowie’s Low | Hugo Wilcken*
Part of what makes Wilcken’s volume on Low so compelling is its focus on intersections: the intersection of David Bowie’s creative process with his cocaine-fueled paranoia and obsession with the occult: Bowie’s intersections with other musicians and performers (ie., Iggy Pop, Brian Eno, Kraftwerk); the intersection of English and American pop with Krautrock; and intersections of traditional rock instrumentation with new technologies. With so many influences and circumstances crossing paths, it’s no wonder that Low is now considered one of the best and most influential albums of the 70’s. Wilcken’s precise prose and ability to balance the many narrative threads surrounding Bowie and his album result in a satisfying and informative entry in the 33 1/3 series.
#27 | Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA | Geoffrey Himes*
Geoffrey Himes’ book on Springsteen’s Born in the USA is a fine example of a 33 1/3 book with a lot to say. Over the course of his volume, Himes provides an impressively thorough context for the album and its place in Springsteen’s career. He traces the development of demos as they wound up on Born in the USA and Nebraska, and even talks about a few that never found an official home. All the while, Himes is sticking up for Born in the USA, arguing that it is vastly underrated by Springsteen’s fans. In short, the volume does a fine job of providing both a comprehensive overview of this period of Springsteen’s career, and making a consistent, thoughtful argument. So why does the book annoy the hell out of me? Because one of the fundamental assumptions Himes makes in his argument is that Springsteen’s albums thrive when they balance the comedic with the dramatic, as if comedy in pop music is somehow essential. Nebraska doesn’t do comedy. Born to Run doesn’t do comedy (exactly). Darkness on the Edge of Town doesn’t do comedy. Those, in no particular order, are my three favorite Springsteen albums. But Himes argues that one of Springsteen’s great weaknesses is that he sometimes takes himself too seriously. While I certainly understand such a stance—and am sure I have made similar points about other artists in various media—I strongly disagree with Himes. See, when Springsteen is taking himself seriously, even on the stark Nebraska, a particular sense of redemption and sometimes *gasp* joy creeps into the songs and, while they don’t undermine Springsteen’s seriousness, they elevate songs that could be self-serious slogs into celebrations of human experience. Born in the USA is a fine album, but let’s face it, its production is dated as all hell (a point that Himes never addresses), and it rarely hits the emotional highs of some of Springsteen’s earlier work. Still, despite my vehement disagreement with some of Himes’ assumptions, this volume is an excellent entry in the 33 1/3 series. Consider this: it’s the only volume so far that has spurred me to vehement disagreement.
#28 | The Band’s Music From Big Pink | A Novella by John Niven*
Niven’s Music From Big Pink: A Novella is one of a handful of fictional entries in the 33 1/3 series. It is also the series’ most successful attempt at exploring a classic album through fiction. What makes Niven’s approach largely effective is his willingness to commit to the characters and circumstances surrounding the creation of The Band’s debut album. The story is about a young drug dealer named Greg who befriends and parties with members of The Band while the, erm, band are recording their famous album in Woodstock, New York. The book isn’t perfect—the story is a bit predictable, and the piece, as a whole, is hampered by an odd frame and a too-abrupt ending—but the novella works exceptionally well as a period piece about The Band, and Music From Big Pink. With little more than Greg’s basic reactions to some of the album’s songs, Niven has constructed a narrative that conveys a sense of the album’s essence. Having read Niven’s book, I feel as if I understand Music From Big Pink and its contexts better than before, simply by allowing Niven’s characters to guide me into and through their historical moment.
#29 | Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea | Kim Cooper
Throughout the course of the 33 1/3 series, it’s become clear that great authors can write great books about surprising albums. At the time of this volume’s release, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea was the newest album to be featured in the series, barely edging out OK Computer, and DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing…. Consider also the brief lifespan of Neutral Milk Hotel and the elusiveness of Jeff Mangum, and it’s a bit surprising that Kim Cooper dug up much at all to say about the band or the album. As should be expected, this volume is short—104 pages—and, rather than really digging into In the Aeroplace Over the Sea, the volume works more as an overview of Neutral Milk Hotel’s formation and subsequent career, perhaps with a slight emphasis on Aeroplane. The volume works as a sort of primer for or handbook to Neutral Milk Hotel and In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, but it doesn’t provide a ton of depth. Some of the anecdotes from the band’s early days when they were getting to know each other are endearing, but the later track-by-track album walkthrough is a bore. Ultimately, Cooper’s volume could be useful for Neutral Milk Hotel newcomers or super fans—those who would benefit from a bit of context, or who are so desperate for new information that the slivers in this volume might suffice, overall, though, the book doesn’t have a lot to say.
#30 | Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique | Dan LeRoy*
Paul’s Boutique, along with De La Soul’s 3 Feet High and Rising, perhaps, changed hip hop and popular music forever. One of the things that makes Dan LeRoy’s telling of the Beastie Boys’ (with the help of Matt Dike and The Dust Brothers) creation of Paul’s Boutique so much fun, is the author’s ability to both capture the band’s irreverent spirit and demonstrate how that irreverence informed the classic album. LeRoy tells the story of the Beasties’ weird headspace coming off of Licensed to Ill and its tour, the controversy that found the band leaving Def Jam and signing up with Capitol, how the band hooked up with their legendary Paul’s Boutique production team, and the album’s uneven reception by critics and consumers alike. LeRoy’s volume closes with a track-by-track that transcends the banal by focusing on some of the various samples used in each of the album’s tracks. LeRoy’s volume is a fun and informative read, capturing the Beastie Boys’ anarchic spirit both in and out of the recording studio.
#31 |The Pixies’ Doolittle | Ben Sisario
Structurally speaking, Ben Sisario’s approach to Doolittle is steeped in convention. The volume’s first half is a historical account of The Pixies’ beginnings and the creation of Doolittle, and the second half is a song-by-song analysis of the music and lyrics, with bits of recording history tossed in for good measure. What makes Sisario’s volume stand out is that his go-to source for information about Doolittle is one Charles Thompson (aka Frank Black). Over the course of a few days, Sisario and Thompson drove around Oregon talking about The Pixies and their classic album. Despite the roadtrip novelty of Sisario’s interviews with Thompson, the author’s use of his material is decidedly mixed. At times, Thompson’s resistance to lyrical analysis and willful vagueness in answering Sisario’s questions sit uncomfortably on the page. At other moments, when Sisario quotes Thompson’s rambling summaries of the narratives within some of the album’s songs, the material is gripping. Perhaps the biggest side-effect of placing Thompson at the center of this volume, though, is that Sisario, himself, is sometimes lost in the shuffle. This is a shame because the author’s analysis is sharp and his knowledge about the art and philosophy that informed The Pixies’ work (surrealism, religion,etc…) is impressive. When the book abruptly ends, sans conclusion, at the end of the song-by-song’s section on “Gouge Away,” I was disappointed, but not surprised—judging from the rest of the volume, if Thompson didn’t offer anything around which to build a strong conclusion, Sisario wasn’t going to be willing to forge one on his own.
#32 | Sly and the Family Stones’ There’s a Riot Goin’ On | Marshal Miles Lewis
I came to Miles Marshall Lewis’s volume on Sly and the Family Stone’s funk classic, There’s a Riot Goin’ On with certain expectations. Like many great pop albums, the album carries with it a dark and mysterious mythology. Fans of the album have heard the sordid stories of drug use, groupie seductions resulting in worn out tapes, and a paranoia driven malaise permeating the project. The rumors surrounding the album’s creation, combined with the band’s storied rise to fame as a progressive, sixties funk jam band, have always made There’s a Riot Goin’ On a seductive text–alongside Love’s Forever Changes and the Rolling Stones’ set at Altamont–to read through the lens of failed sixties idealism. That’s what I was hoping to find in Lewis’s entry into the 33 1/3 series. And, to some extent, at times, that is what we get. The book includes occasional anecdotes about overdoses, Stone’s bizarre behavior in the recording studio, and details of various interpersonal conflicts. But, for the most part, Lewis’s book comes off as almost clinical. Whether Lewis is describing a song’s personnel, celebrating a particular vocal, or describing the atmosphere at Stone’s mansion, the prose comes off as strictly informative. At times, it seems as if Lewis is almost trying to resist sensationalizing the album’s making (which I admire), but ends up compensating too far in the opposite direction.
#33 | The Stone Roses’ The Stone Roses | Alex Green*
I’ll be honest, when I started reading Alex Green’s book on The Stone Roses, I hadn’t listened to the album in years. Something about the band’s absurd self-importance and the songs’ overly-80’s polish just kept me from wanting to go back to that particular well. As is often the case when dealing with a book about a record I’m not particularly familiar with or haven’t listened to in a while, I was a bit of an easy mark for Green’s book. That is to say, Green isn’t doing anything out of the ordinary or particularly impressive in his volume on The Stone Roses, but the book is hugely informative and traces a number of interesting threads running around and through the The Stone Roses’ career. By spending time on a bit of British history, the roots of Brit Pop, the development of the Madchester scene, and the Roses’ burn bright/flame out career arc, Green does a nice job of covering a lot of the key ideas surrounding the album, even if the volume’s attempts to cover it all leads to an emphasis on quantity over depth. But really, that’s okay—Green’s guide to The Stone Roses is a fine introduction to an album that, despite its abundance of great songs, is easily lost to time’s forward march—at least to us Americans.
#34 | Nirvana’s In Utero | Gillian G. Gaar
While I’ve long enjoyed Nirvana’s music, I’ve never been one of those Nirvana fans who knows about all of the drama and controversy that surrounded the band. Sure, I know the things that most people know—Kurt’s drug use and stomach problems, the band’s struggles with fame, and that there were some issues with the first, Steve Albini recorded version of In Utero, but that’s about it. That’s why, even though Gillian G. Gaar’s exploration of In Utero’s history is largely perfunctory, I found it to be an engaging, informative read. Perhaps one of the most impressive elements of Gaar’s book is her ability to walk us through the album’s development—including the Albini controversy, and some peripheral discussions of Cobain’s suicide—without sensationalizing the subject matter. This volume is concise and professional, sticking to facts and balanced viewpoints to tell us how one of the 90’s best albums came to be.
#35 | Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited | Mark Polizzotti*
Polizzotti’s volume on Highway 61 Revisited is an archetypal rock book. The author spends his volume’s pages providing ultra-close readings of Dylan’s songs, and mixing in a healthy dose of context, history, and recording information. And while Polizzotti does a fine job of breaking the album into easily digestible chunks, the book ultimately leaves me with a resigned, “So what?” followed closely by a resolute, “Oh great, yet another book about Bob Dylan’s brilliance.” But who can argue with that? Dylan is brilliant. Highway 61 Revisited is brilliant. But what’s the story, here? What’s the argument? And that’s the problem with Polizzotti’s book—it’s a fine, utilitarian volume that doesn’t really tell us much new about Dylan. Also, at times it’s difficult to tell if the author is employing hyperbole, or if he’s just a little out of touch. One of my favorite examples of this is in the early-going when, after quoting the opening lines of “Like a Rolling Stone,” Polizzotti writers, “Practically every school child knows the famous opening by now.” Of course, I had an entire freshman composition course who didn’t even know who Bob Dylan was. Ultimately, then, in addition to not having anything new or interesting to say about Dylan, Polizzotti’s volume also comes off as entitled and with the grating sense of self-importance we’ve come to expect from Boomer culture.
#36 | My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless | Mike McGonigal*
I wasn’t expecting much from Mike McGonigal’s volume on Loveless. Though I don’t remember the circumstances, I seem to remember the book being delayed for quite some time. I began to think of this book the way I think about films that keep getting bumped by a studio: it probably sucks. After reading McGonigal’s book, though, I was pleasantly surprised. Where McGonigal’s Loveless shines is in its abundant and insightful interviews with Kevin Shields, most of the rest of My Bloody Valentine, and a handful of other folks who were around throughout the album’s epic and troubled creation. McGonigal gives Shields and company a platform to debunk some of the more negative myths surrounding the album’s creation, and they manage to do so in fairly thorough fashion. That said, the book does suffer from a bit too much fanboy zeal and an occasional lack of focus. It also suffers from its odd and uncomfortable penultimate chapter, which finds the author directly responding to a critique from series editor, David Barker. Apparently, Barker asked if the book might not end on a slightly more upbeat note that might consider the creative control and financial position that MBV’s album ultimately afforded Shields. The chapter finds McGonigal responding in an awkward, passive-aggressive—though interesting—fashion, telling us, “For me, the power of the album itself is enough.” Putting the writer’s ego aside, for a moment, McGonigal’s volume is an effective, pleasant read; but man, that ego really rubbed me the wrong way.
#37 | The Who’s The Who Sell Out | John Dougan*
The Who Sell Out is a precariously placed album in rock history. The album was an early-ish concept album and a tremendous document of its historical context, but for many, the album didn’t age well, maybe because it was too much of its time. Perhaps my own life experiences (most notably having a father who was a disc jockey in his youth and who, to this day, adores old radio jingles) helps me see past the album’s dated references so that I can enjoy the songs. For those without ex-DJ fathers or similar experiences, though, John Dougan’s volume on The Who Sell Out might do the trick. Dougan does a nice job of exploring the radio culture that gave shape to The Who’s weird, classic album, and the ways the album mucked around with that culture. Through an examination of London’s swinging sixties, pirate radio, youth culture, and the intersection of pop and art, Dougan contextualizes The Who Sell Out to an impressive degree, revealing, in the process, layers I never knew were there to be uncovered.
#38 | Guided By Voices’ Bee Thousand | Marc Woodworth*
I’m from Dayton, Ohio. Guided By Voices are from Dayton, Ohio. I don’t know where Marc Woodworth is from, but he might as well be from Dayton, Ohio because one of this volume’s greatest strengths is its evocations of that tired, broken city that spawned Guided By Voices. In a series of short segments that recall GBV’s signature album’s structure, Woodworth combines band member narratives, fan testimonials, GBV history lessons, song descriptions, recording histories, word clusters, poetry, and a fake “found text,” by Professor Bart O. Roper, LLD, that analyzes Bob Pollard’s lyrics, to explore and celebrate what, for many music fans, is the cult classic to end cult classics. Woodworth’s Bee Thousand playfully turns the album inside-out and somehow, despite the book’s intentional lack of focus, ends up as one of the most comprehensive and satisfying volumes in the 33 1/3 series.
#39 | Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation | Matthew Stearns*
Stearns’ take on Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation is a perfect example of how good intentions can go wrong for books in this series. Stearns is clearly a passionate fan of Daydream Nation, and his prose and analysis are both good enough, if not great. What holds Daydream Nation is its lack of focus. Stearns’ analysis is thoughtful, but it doesn’t lead to anything, and his uses of context and history don’t tell us much about Daydream Nation that adds to conversations surrounding the album. The only thread that holds Stearns’ volume together is his enthusiasm, which at times crosses into overzealous fanboy territory. Stearns’ volume isn’t a bad book, by any means, but considering the 33 1/3 track record and the greatness of Daydream Nation, #39 falls a bit flat.
#40 | Joni Mitchell’s Court and Spark | Sean Nelson
Who would’ve thought, all those years ago, that the dude who sang “Flagpole Sitta” as a member of Harvey Danger would turn out to be a pretty great music writer? Honestly, there was no reason for anyone not to think that, but let’s be honest, there’s something about one-hit-wonders (which, to be fair, Harvey Danger were pretty great beyond their one big hit) that makes us think that, once the wonder has passed, that all involved parties must necessarily wallow in obscurity, desperately longing for past glories. Apparently, that doesn’t always happen. Sean Nelson, it seems, in addition to making a number of guest appearances on albums by Pacific-Northwestern musical acts like Death Cab for Cutie and The Decemberists, has taken to writing about music, and he’s pretty damn good at it. In his volume about Joni Mitchell’s Court and Spark, Nelson manages to seamlessly combine a discussion of how the album fits into Mitchell’s dazzling run of albums from 1971-1975 and how its songs tap into the “looming despair, romantic agony, and cultural entropy” (21) of L.A. in the early 70’s. Perhaps most surprising about Nelson’s volume, though, is it does most of this work through a strategy that rarely yields strong results in the 33 1/3 world: a song-by-song close reading of Court and Sparks’ themes. Here’s the thing—by framing his book with the broad questions of how Court and Spark fits into Mitchell’s body of work, and how its songs reflected changing attitudes coming out of the failed euphoria of the late sixties, Nelson gives himself two strong, linked threads toward which he can focus his close readings. To be honest, 33 1/3 volumes built around explicating albums track-by-track are generally my least favorite as they seem to work like a guide book rather than a cohesive interrogation of how and why an album works, but Nelson’s close reading is so thorough, and so clearly focused on his two overarching themes that this volume makes for a fun, and enlightening read.
#41 | Guns N’ Roses’ Use Your Illusion I and II | Eric Weisbard*
Weisbard’s study of G n’R’s classic trainwreck of a “double album” (or two separate albums, whatever) tries to cover a lot of ground, and is largely successful. The volume is part cultural study of the late eighties and early nineties, part history and analysis comparing Axl Rose the character with Axl Rose the man, part listening guide to both volumes of Use Your Illusion, and part personal narrative of how Weisbard has approached the albums over time. One might think that by attempting to cover all of that in 125 pages, Weisbard’s book would be an unfocused mess—well, it kind of is, but that’s part of its charm. Like the albums it sets out to explore, Weisbard’s book strays wherever it pleases, but his sharp ear and mostly tight prose keep the proceedings on track far better than G n’R managed.
#42 | Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life | Zeth Lundy*
Lundy’s Songs in the Key of Life is a solid if unexceptional entry in the 33 1/3 canon. Dividing the book into five parts—“Birth,” “Innocence,” “Experience,” “Death,” and “Transcendence,”—Lundy tells us a little bit about many aspects of Stevie Wonder’s classic album. While Lundy’s structure plays at paralleling something resembling a life cycle, most of the information and analysis is fairly conventional—useful, but completely expected: we read about Wonder’s motorcycle accident, the press conference where he announced his double album, and plenty of recording studio minutiae. In the “Death” section, though, Lundy hits on something exciting by tracing Wonder’s ruminations about mortality across Songs and some of Wonder’s other albums. While Lundy’s book is solid and effective, it is only in the “Death” section where the author delivers something fresh and exciting.
#43 | The Byrds’ The Notorious Byrd Brothers | Ric Menck*
There isn’t much to really get excited about in Ric Menck’s volume on The Notorious Byrd Brothers. Menck presents a history of The Byrds leading up to the album, then walks us through the album track by track while recounting loads of sensationalized studio drama and vivid musician shop talk (Menck was/is the drummer for Velvet Crush, and his experience shines through in the shop-talk, making for one of this volume’s strengths). Mixed in with the largely banal approach to The Byrds’ classic album are a handful of cool anecdotes about how Menck came to love The Byrds, the time Velvet Crush played with Robert McGuinn, and the time an acquaintance of Menck’s met The Byrds while they were recording The Notorious Byrd Brothers. Ultimately, Menck’s volume is competent and good enough, but it also embodies every middling rock book stereotype that keeps the genre from transcending its mediocrity.
#44 | Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica | Kevin Courrier*
While Courrier’s volume on what may be Beefheart’s wildest, weirdest, and most-loved album is informative and precise in its telling, reading this book can be a bit of a slog. The book’s opening is strong enough, as Courrier details his discovery of the album, and how the first copy he’d ever heard was literally buried with a dead friend, but once the personal stories are put aside, the book’s emphasis shifts to a fairly straight-forward retelling of Beefheart’s history and the creation of Trout Mask Replica. To those ends, the book, despite its academic dryness, is fairly useful for curious Beefheart fans. I should say that, while I’m certainly not opposed to an academic approach in these books, here that approach feels somewhat rote. Of course, further slowing the book’s pace is Courrier’s telling of a number of oft-traced myths surrounding Beefheart’s paranoia and controlling behavior. These unsettling stories of the Captain’s behavior can still be a bit charming, but so much reliance on tired rumor and hearsay sometimes adds up to a whole lot of nothing-we-haven’t-heard-before.
#45 | Minutemen’s Double Nickels on the Dime | Michael T. Fournier
Michael T. Fournier’s volume on Minutemen’s Double Nickels on the Dime is a pleasant and informative, if ultimately scattershot entry in the 33 1/3 series. After a brief introduction that provides some background into the band’s formation and Double Nickels’ “song draft” construction, Fournier puts the rest of the book in the hands of the song-by-song discussion. At times, Fournier’s use of the song-by-song is a lot of fun, thanks to his interactions with folks involved with the album’s making, as well as his own laid-back, conversational prose style. When Fournier writes about teaching a punk rock class at Tuft’s and showing episodes of Jackass to his class, the book feels like a big hangout, which is perfectly suited to a book about Minutemen. Fournier also does a nice job of telling readers about some of the themes, politics, and influences running through Double Nickels without bogging down the reader. I had no idea Ulysses for instance, was one of Watt’s key references throughout the album and it was also interesting to read about just how theory-minded members of the band were with regards to a song like “Do You Want New Wave or Do You Want the Truth?” Unfortunately, thanks to the book’s song-by-song structure, things get a bit tedious and repetitive as Fournier ends up repeating key ideas several times when relevant to different songs. That being said, Fournier has still done a nice job of constructing a fun, easy guidebook to a great but sometimes overwhelming album. In other words, SST might as well just start packaging Double Nickels with copies of this book because Fournier has written a nice, long set of liner notes.
#46 | Steely Dan’s Aja | Don Breithaupt*
While Don Breithaupt’s volume on Aja is something of a mixed bag, it’s a mixed bag I really enjoyed. So why is it a mixed bag, exactly? Well, on the one hand, Breithaupt does a phenomenal job of exploring Aja’s context with regards to time-period, geography, and genre, as well as the album’s storied recording history and gorgeous, top-shelf production; on the other hand, Breithaupt, a “studio musician and songwriter” often goes a bit too much down the rabbit hole of technical terminology and music theory that, at times, the book can get pretty dry, if not flat-out inscrutable. Breithaupt does provide a glossary for those who might struggle with the particulars of his commitment to detail, but even the glossary isn’t all that useful without a clear sense of what it might contain while reading. Still, the strength’s of Breithaupt’s volume easily outweigh these weaknesses (especially in a wonderful if too-short chapter on the landscape of 70’s radio), making Aja a worthwhile, mostly enjoyable read.
#47 | A Tribe Called Quest’s People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm | Shawn Taylor
Despite being an unfocused volume in the 33 1/3 series, Shawn Taylor’s book on People’s Instinctive Travels…is quite effective. Much of this effectiveness is due to Taylor’s warm prose and passionate interest in Tribe and their album. Taylor opens his volume with a moving and smart combination of memoir and cultural studies, in which he tells us a bit about why Tribe’s music was important to a nerd in the city (the answer?: Tribe not only gave listeners a new idea of “what a city could be,” it also “gave us a means of locomotion: the rhythm–the engine that ran the psychosomatic megapolis–was our train, bike, cab and bus ride through the body metroplex”). Taylor’s volume starts to run out of steam a bit as he describes his three-trial listening test, and then loses a bit more steam in a surprisingly uninteresting interview with album-producer Bob Powers. Even with these missteps, Taylor’s volume is a fun read that does a nice job of blending personal experience with a sound critical approach.
#48 | PJ Harvey’s Rid of Me | A Story by Kate Schatz*
When I first reviewed this volume on my old blog, I basically argued that Schatz’s attempts to write fiction that evoked the moods and themes of Rid of Me was a success, but that as a work of fiction, the narrative lacked grounding. On second read, I enjoyed the book much more. I’m still impressed at how Schatz’s use of language translates the anger and sorrow of PJ Harvey’s album into prose. And I’m a little less unimpressed with the story itself, which may be trying to do a few things too many, but as a result ends up feeling appropriately dusty and desperate. I suspect Rid of Me: A Story could have worked a bit better if contained to a single character’s point of view rather than bouncing between Kathleen and Mary. Still, despite the volume’s short-comings, it is an impressive enough entry in the series.
#49 | U2’s Achtung Baby | Meditations on Love in the Shadow of the Fall by Stephen Catanzarite
Stephen Catanzarite’s approach to Achtung Baby is unique within the 33 1/3 canon. Rather than discussing the history of U2 or their classic album (outside of a few pages in his epilogue), Catanzarite sets out to explore the songs’ spiritual themes through the lens of a manufactured narrative that he applies to Achtung Baby. The result isn’t exactly fiction, but is a sort of literalization of the album’s central themes of love, loss, and redemption as illustrated by a series of meditations played out in a series of faux-scenes that run parallel to the album’s songs. While much of Catanzarite’s dramatization of the album’s treatment of spirituality and morality are engaging and smart, the author occasionally betrays an unsettling fixation on tradition. Most troubling is Cantanzarite’s sixth chapter, “Fear of Woman,” which focuses on the album cuts “Mysterious Ways,” and “Trying to Throw Your Arms Around the World.” What troubles me in this chapter is Cantanzarite’s conflation of popular culture’s treatment of the concept of the empowered woman, whose “sphere of influence is apparently determined by her ability to either emulate or exploit a man’s baser instincts,” with, what he terms, “radical feminism.” This misreading, at best, signals the author’s ignorance of his subject matter and, at worst, illuminates a willful attempt to disregard the positive influences of feminism. That Cantanzarite goes on to discuss our cultural flight from some essentialized version of “authentic womanhood” might point to the later, but who am I to judge, never having met the man. Despite this book’s troubled sixth chapter, Catanzarite’s reading of Achtung Baby through “the Shadow of the Fall,” is an engaging, if strange read.
#50 | Belle and Sebastian’s If You’re Feeling Sinister | Scott Plagenhoef*
Scott Plagenhoef’s volume on If You’re Feeling Sinister is one of my favorite types of 33 1/3 books—it tells the story of Belle and Sebastian and their classic album, while also telling a story about the culture from which it sprung, which, in this instance, is the story of the internet’s increasing role in the lifecycle of pop acts. Plagenhoef argues that Belle and Sebastian’s rise to popularity coincided with the growth of the internet and, as such, Belle and Sebastian can be seen as one of the last bands to enjoy having a semblance of control over their own narratives and mystique. Plagenhoef, the former editor-in-chief of Pitchfork, pulls each of these threads together impressively, making for an engaging read that isn’t just about an album or a band, but about a transitional moment in pop culture.
#51 | Nick Drake’s Pink Moon | Amanda Petrusich*
Nick Drake has a lot of baggage. Not literally, of course, because he’s been dead for decades. But as a cultural figure, Nick Drake is a magnet for media narratives. This isn’t surprising—Drake died young and tragically, and his legacy was later unearthed thanks to taste-forward advertisers. As such, Drake’s life and career is seductive to all of those folks who like to romanticize dead rock stars and suffering artists. Amanda Petrusich does a fine job of telling Drake’s story, while also exploring the relationship between commerce and art via Drake’s posthumous popularity. Petrusich examines the roots of Drake’s resurgence thanks to that old Volkswagon ad, and grapples with the question of why Drake’s music resonates so deeply for so many people. The volume includes interesting interstitials in which musicians and media types, including Lou Barlow, Damien Jurardo, and Curt Kirkwood, write brief explanations of why Pink Moon is important to them. Ultimately, Petrusich’s volume is both a celebration of Pink Moon and a smart exploration of the album’s odd relationship with popular and commercial culture.
#52 | Celine Dion’s Let’s Talk About Love | A Journey to the End of Taste by Carl Wilson*
There’s really no way around it: Carl Wilson’s interrogation of taste and culture, using Celine Dion’s Let’s Talk About Love as a vehicle, instantly became the highlight of the 33 1/3 series when it was released in 2007, and it still hasn’t been surpassed. The premise is simple, but elegant: Carl Wilson hates Celine Dion’s music, but rather than writing her off as a hack, he uses his own attitudes as a gateway into an exploration of how taste is made, how taste is relational, and why so many people love Celine Dion. While I’m a big fan of the 33 1/3 series as a music fan, if tasked with picking a book that transcends the series that I might recommend to readers who don’t obsess over music the way I do, this would be the first volume I’d look to. While Dion’s album is at the center of Wilson’s investigations into preferences and what shapes them, his “Journey to the End of Taste,” isn’t the stuff of rock books—it’s the stuff of cultural criticism at its smartest, most entertaining, and most accessible. (Note: This brief summary is adapted from a previous, longer review I wrote of this book for my old blog. The review is still up, here.)
#53 | Tom Waits’ swordfishtrombones | David Smay
David Smay’s volume on swordfishtrombones feels like one of the weirder entries in the 33 1/3 series: it’s unfocused, rambling, sometimes obtuse, funny, interesting, eclectic, scattershot, and the prose is, more often than not, a treat to read. All of that is to say, Smay’s book feels exactly like a book about Tom Waits should feel. After a brief introduction that opens with the intriguing line, “Don’t expect me to tell you the truth about Tom Waits,” Smay leads us through the album with each song getting its own chapter. Unlike some of the other volumes that employ this approach, these chapters are free to roam, to make connections between songs, between albums, and between eras of Waits’s career. Though I’ve long been a fan of Waits’s work, I knew little about him. After reading Smay’s volume—which effectively works as a field guide, of sorts, primarily to swordfishtrombones, but also Waits as an artist and, as much as possible, as a human being—I feel like I have a pretty good handle on what makes up Tom Waits. One of the more interesting threads that emerges over the course of the book is the influence Waits’s marriage to Kathleen Brennan had on his songwriting. Smay never explores the relationship enough to make it the book’s focus, but he does return to it enough that it works as a subtle through-thread that helps give the book its shape, even as the volume careens wildly between odd bits of information and foggy narratives.
#54 | Throbbing Gristle’s 20 Jazz Funk Greats | Drew Daniel
In this volume on Throbbing Gristle’s 20 Jazz Funk Greats, Drew Daniel traces the album’s influences, explores the band’s transgressive nature, and examines how the album fits into the band’s career trajectory. With an act like Throbbing Gristle, none of these tasks are particularly easy. Of course, nobody expected that Daniel’s task with this book would be easy—how could it be when an infamous noise band, who, in the past, released boundaries-of-taste-pushing songs (ie., one features samples of a pedophile talking), releases their version of a pop album built on warped and choked ideas of disco and jazz funk. Daniel’s sharp, incisive, and always personable prose somehow manages to navigate the layers of controversies and curiosities surrounding Throbbing Gristle’s weird, landmark album. As is often the case with 33 1/3 books, some of Daniel’s success can be attributed to his willingness to spend some time discussing his personal connection to his book’s subject. While most of this personal reflection is contained in the books opening and closing chapters—the first telling us of a young Drew Daniel’s discovery of Throbbing Gristle, which coincided with another grizzly “discovery” by him and his friends, and the last finds a more contemporary Daniel describing a Throbbing Gristle reunion performance in 2004. While much of Daniel’s book revolves around historical context and analysis, by sharing some of his personal experience with 20 Jazz Funk Greats, Daniel makes it that much more inviting for his audience to enter the dark, disturbed world of Throbbing Gristle.
#55 | Patti Smith’s Horses | Philip Shaw
As I’ve been reading and rereading a number of these books, I’ve become interested in someday putting together a full-series re-read that would go through each book using the chronological release date of each volume’s subject. I suspect that doing this would bring to light some interesting connections that might otherwise be missed: connections between Elliot Smith and Celine Dion, The Rolling Stones and Aretha Franklin, and of course Patti Smith and Television. Shaw’s volume on Horses, which chronicles Smith’s early life up through the creation of her seminal album, with one eye always focused on the cultural context and history, that ultimately travels a path parallel to Bryan Waterman’s volume on Television’s Marquee Moon. Of course, both volumes stand well enough on their own; Shaw’s, in particular, is framed, in part, as a study of rock music’s resistance to analysis, and its function in the production of pleasure. But don’t let Shaw’s big words and pedigree (he’s an academic through and through a “Reader in the English Department at the University of Leicester,” the book’s back cover tells us) fool you—his take on Horses is a whip-smart, thorough, and nuanced exploration of Smith, her album, and the contexts that shaped both.
#56 | Black Sabbaths’ Master of Reality | John Darnielle
As a means to explore Black Sabbath’s Master of Reality, John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats writes through the eyes of a teenager in a mental health facility who wants nothing more than to have access to his tapes and walkman so he can listen to his favorite album. The teen’s rambling voice wears a bit thin by the end, but Darnielle does a brilliant job of capturing the enthusiasm that the young, troubled music fan has for Sabbath’s album. Darnielle has pulled off something of a feat, here—writing a 33 1/3 volume that’s as much about what it means to be a fan of an album as it is about the album itself.
#57 | Slayer’s Reign in Blood | D.X. Ferris*
I wrote about this book once before at my old blog, and my thoughts haven’t really changed, so I went back to that review and pulled some thoughts out of it, which I have presented below with some updating: After a rocky start, in which Ferris over-romanticizes metal subculture with ridiculous ideas of brotherhood and hyper-masculine unity, his research and insight into Reign in Blood is riveting. The book makes a clear turn for the better with its section about Rick Rubin, and from there until, almost, the very end, Ferris provides a fairly comprehensive and entertaining history of one of metal’s finest moments. I say almost to the end because, to be honest, once Ferris leaves behind the fascinating and lovable characters who made the album–the dudes in Slayer, of course, cover artist Larry Carroll, Rick Rubin, engineer Andy Wallace, and a slew of brief cameos from metal-heads and punks alike—in favor of a track by track analysis, the book loses a good deal of momentum. Fortunately, that last section isn’t very long.
#58 | Richard and Linda Thompson’s Shoot Out the Lights | Hayden Child*
This is a weird, weird book. It’s kind of a novella, but it features a great deal of straight-forward album analysis. The fictional half of the book tells the story of Virgil Schlage, a self-proclaimed faux-double of Richard Thompson. Virgil is obsessed with Thompson and Shoot Out the Lights, and has a chance to think about (read: analyze) the album while recounting his own life story in which he is driving up the East Coast, through a hurricane, to claim his dead ex-wife’s body. The idea is that Virgil is going through hell and is, therefore, the perfect guide through Richard and Linda Thompson’s relationship hell that informed the creation of Shoot Out the Lights. Here’s the thing: Childs’ fiction has some fine moments, but often feels like an afterthought. At times, the book’s fictional drive is forgotten altogether, and at others it’s relegated to brief paragraphs. Often, the fiction just reads as flat. But when Childs’ prose clicks it is fun to read. Thankfully, Childs’ album analysis ranges from fine to exceptional. Childs has a good ear and a strong sense of how to write about music. The problem with this volume, as a whole, is that the fiction and the analysis never really seem to fit well together. I suspect that had Childs committed more fully to the story he was trying to tell rather than half-assedly leaning on it as an organizational crutch, this could have been a very exciting entry in the 33 1/3 series. As it stands, the book is an interesting experiment with some affecting and smart moments, but unfortunately it never figures out what type of book it wants to be.
#59 | The Afghan Whigs’ Gentlemen | Bob Gendron
Sometimes, when I’m thoroughly acquainted with an album and artist, I find more straightforward, journalistic entries in the 33 1/3 series a bit dull. For example: I really like Neil Young’s Harvest. I also knew a great deal about Harvest before reading that volume in the series. As such, I found the straight-forward, journalistic/historical approach in that volume rather boring. On the opposite end of the spectrum, when I know little to nothing about an artist or album, I’m more likely to give a pass and even enjoy these more conventional books. Enter Bob Gendron’s book on The Afghan Whigs’ Gentlemen. This volume is workmanlike, utilitarian—it tells us the Whigs’ story, and the story of Gentlemen, with research and original interviews. Gendron’s prose, at times, tries too hard to impress, at others falls flat, and at others is overrun by super fan exuberance, but the Whigs’ story is engaging enough, and Gendron stays enough out of its way, that the the books ends up being interesting and useful.
#60 | The Pogues’ Rum, Sodomy, & the Lash | Jeffrey T. Roesgen
Until I started reading Roesgen’s volume on The Pogues’ classic album, I had no idea that most of it was written as a fictional account of the journey of the French frigate, Medusa, which, in 1816, became stranded on a bank, and was eventually evacuated during a storm, resulting in a number of crew members turning to cannibalism. In the volume’s closing notes, Roesegen explains that, over the years, and probably because The Pogues later recorded a song about the Medusa (1990’s “The Wake of the Medusa” from Hell’s Ditch), he fit the story of the ill-fated ship to Rum, Sodomy, & the Lash. Part of me wonders, had Roesgen put this information at the front of his volume, if I’d have enjoyed the volume a bit more. I say this because I want to give Roesgen and his book the benefit of the doubt, but his strategy of mixing chapters about life on the Medusa with brief sections giving a bit of background about each of the album’s songs ends up feeling clumsy and uneven. Here’s the weird thing, though: the bits about the Medusa aren’t bad—though there isn’t much of a narrative through-thread until the last third of the story—and the sections about the songs aren’t bad, but the two approaches never manage to work together in any sort of meaningful or logical way. In fact, most of the time, the two sections just sort of bump up against each other arbitrarily without any reason or context for existing side-by-side, which, ultimately, makes Roesgen’s book one of the most frustrating and least satisfying books in the 33 1/3 series. I hate to come down on the book so hard because I like Roesgen’s prose, and I appreciate the ambition of his project, but this is, basically, a failed experiment (and we’ve all had a few of those, right?).
#61 | The Flying Burrito Brothers’ The Gilded Palace of Sin | Bob Proehl
Bob Proehl’s volume on The Gilded Palace of Sin is an essential read for fans of Gram Parsons, The Flying Burrito Brothers, and the 33 1/3 series as an entity in itself. The first two are pretty obvious, as most readers would expect a book on Parsons and the Burrito Bros. to explore the band’s origins and Parson’s self-indulgent behavior. Where Proehl’s book earns its special wings, though, is in how thoroughly and brilliantly the author traces Parsons and The Burrito’s many intersections with other important rock albums, many of which have also been covered in the 33 1/3 series. We get significant overlap with The Byrds’ The Notorious Byrd Brothers, The Stones’ Exile on Main St., and a few minor cameos from Love’s Forever Changes, The Bands’ Music from Big Pink, and The Velvet Underground and Nico’s self-titled album. Of course The Byrds and The Stones are major players in the Parsons story, but its Proehl’s ability to contextualize the Buritto Brothers and show how their sound and story interacted with other sounds and stories from the late sixties and early seventies that makes the book feel almost more as if its recounting myths than talking about working musicians. Add to this a brilliant chapter about the origins of Nudie Suits and the life of Nudie Cohn, as well as other treks into context providing historical territory—most notably Altamont and the negative vibes overrunning the California scene at the turn of the decade—and Proehl’s book ends up standing among my favorites in the 33 1/3 catalog. Sure, the stuff about Parsons and the Burritos is cool, but it’s Proehl’s sense of history and scope that make the book feel not just like a book about one man and his band, but like the connective tissue between so many of 60’s rocks big moments that Parsons kind of, sort of was.
#62 | Wire’s Pink Flag | Wilson Neate*
Neate’s take on Wire’s Pink Flag is something of a mixed bag. While Neate does a fine job of providing historical and aesthetic contexts for the album—situating the band within both the punk and art worlds, and discussing Wire’s penchant for minimalism—his over-reliance on quotes feels a bit redundant and tends to suck the air out of his analysis. Neate makes plenty of interesting points throughout this volume, but he spends a little too much time reiterating those points in the words of members of Wire and other musicians who count Wire as an influence. While I’m a fan of Bob Pollard and Ian MacKaye, I’m not that interested in what they really think about Wire or Pink Flag, especially when many of the included quotes amount to basic responses to songs, or reiterations of what Neate has already stated. All of this is to say that Neate’s volume on Pink Flag could have been great, if only he’d followed Wire’s advice to add by subtraction, to pare the text down to its core. There’s still plenty of interest, here, but the whole book gets a bit slow, murky, and redundant the more Neate leans on the words of others.
#63 | Elliot Smith’s XO | Matthew LeMay*
LeMay’s XO is a mostly engaging, mostly smart re-evaluation of Elliot Smith’s XO. The greatest strength of LeMay’s work is in his close-readings of Smith’s songs. LeMay’s readings counter popular interpretations of Smith’s work, reclaiming it from those who fetishize mental illness, drug abuse, and suicide. The author also makes a strong case against Smith’s songwriting as being particularly autobiographical and, in the process liberates XO from the suicide cult’s tyrannical grasp on all things Smith. Where LeMay falters, though, is in his response to old article’s about Smith’s work—it feels as if LeMay takes the music writer’s critiques a bit too personally, and fails to allow for the mostly mainstream context from which the quoted critics and journalists were writing. All in all, this volume is smart, well-written, and does some important work in reclaiming Smith’s album from the clutches of drama fiends and suicide romanticists.
#64 | Nas’ Illmatic | Matthew Gasteier
Matthew Gasteier’s volume on Illmatic was one of the more focused entries in the 33 1/3 series, up its point of release. From the book’s opening pages, Gasteier is interested in the narratives running through Illmatic and why those narratives are important. When I reviewed this book for my old blog a couple of years ago, I had this to say: “In a series of chapters named after the album’s various tensions (‘Youth/Experience,’ ‘Death/Survival,’ ‘Fantasy/Reality,’ ‘Tradition/Revolution’ etc…), Gasteier expertly blends historical accounts of New York hip hop with details from Nas’s life and rise to hip hop fame in service of a literary reading of Illmatic that works as a sort of hip hop coming of age story, or in Gasteier’s own words, ‘a portrait of the artist as a young black man’ (29).” That pretty much nails it—Gasteier’s take on Illmatic is an engaging analysis of the narratives in and around the album. Of course, the volume disappoints at its end, as Gasteier breaks from his focus to provide a song-by-song description of each song, that doesn’t tell us much that our own ears can’t. The rest of the book is strong enough, though, that the weak ending is easy to forgive.
#65 | Big Star’s Radio City | Bruce Eaton*
Bruce Eaton gives us another of 33 1/3’s patchwork affairs. That is to say, huge portions of this volume are given over to quotes and interview excerpts from members of Big Star (including Alex Chilton), and the emphasis on these interviews can get a bit tedious from time to time because, let’s face it, musicians don’t always have the most interesting things to say about their own music. For the most part, though, Eaton does a fine job of writing about this dramatic time in Big Star’s existence without sensationalizing the drama. There isn’t much of an overarching argument, and Eaton doesn’t have a whole lot new to really say about Radio City, but he’s got a lot of great information (including perspectives from the people who were there) that he wants to share with us. On a side note, this is probably the 33 1/3 book with the most typographical errors and weird editing glitches. Hopefully some of these will be/have been corrected if a second printing will or already exists.
#66 | Madness’ One Step Beyond | Terry Edwards
In his 33 1/3 volume on Madness’s One Step Beyond, Terry Edwards pitches himself as an insider ready to dive deep into the backstory behind the creation of one of Madness’ most beloved albums. Edwards’ credentials check out, as he’s a knowledgeable musician who has played with and knows members of Madness. At times, Edwards’ insider status pays off, thanks to his ability to write smartly about Madness’ music, itself, and the access he has to the band’s members provides a number of choice anecdotes. More often than not, though, instead of inviting readers into the fold, Edwards’ scattershot approach to One Step Beyond, mixed with his assumptions that readers of his volume will know the album as intricately as he does, make for a frustrating read. This volume is organized as a track-by-track walkthrough of the album in question, and rather than working from a central thesis or saying anything focused about Madness or their album, Edwards falls into the trap of writing about each song as if delivering a commentary track on a DVD or Blu Ray disc. Edwards provides plenty of fun insight, and some good analysis, but there’s nothing pulling his observations and stories together, resulting in a volume that is useful enough, but not all that compelling a read, except maybe for the most dedicated of Madness fans.
#67 | Brian Eno’s Another Green World | Geeta Dayal*
I first read this book a couple of years ago. When I reviewed it, the review was mostly positive, but was critical of Dayal’s decision to let a largely engaging book collapse into a predictable song-by-song dissection. My critique was stupid. In retrospect, Dayal’s volume is a winner, through and through. Her investigations into Eno’s artistry and creative process are incisive and engaging. From discussions of Eno’s “Oblique Strategies” cards to descriptions of some of his bizarre experiments, Dayal positions herself as a perfect guide into the odd but thoughtful world of Brian Eno. Even when Dayal veers into track-by-track territory, she’s not just stopping to talk about how songs sound—she’s continuing the story of Brian Eno, and exploring the depths of Another Green World. Ultimately, the volume reads like a fantastic celebration of creativity and craft.
#68 | The Flaming Lips’ Zaireeka | Mark Richardson*
Mark Richardson is one of my favorite current music writers. I’ve long enjoyed his “Resonant Frequencies” column and reviews over at Pitchfork, and I was excited when he took over as that site’s Editor-in-Chief. As such, I wasn’t surprised that Mark Richardson knocked his volume on Zaireeka out of the proverbial park. Richardson combines a historical approach to Zaireeka with some engaging music theory that considers the communal nature of Zaireeka, and the ways its complicates the idea of listening. With regards to his treatment of the album’s history, Richardson’s book contains few surprises, but the combination of background and theory (with some endearing bits of personal relevance), along with Richardson’s easy command over his prose, all make this volume a strong entry in the 33 1/3 series.
#69 | The Magnetic Fields’ 69 Love Songs | LD Beghtol*
When I first learned that 69 Love Songs was receiving the 33 1/3 treatment, I was incredulous. I wondered how the hell one of these tiny little books could manage to tell anyone anything about Stephen Merritt’s sprawling opus. As it happens, LD Beghtol, who worked with Merritt on the album as a singer and designer, was up to the task. Laid out like a wildly irreverent ‘zine, and presenting information in the form of a glossary and personnel interviews, Beghtol’s volume isn’t so much a comprehensive volume about the album, so much as it is the perfect companion to the album. In the book’s “glossary” section, most of the entries are presented with tongue planted firmly in cheek (the entry for “Shadows” begins with “A place of crepuscular gloom where people seek mutual validation”), and illuminate the terms’ placement in and relevance to the album’s songs. The book’s second half is then given over to reflections about each of the album’s sixty-nine songs from Merritt and the rest of the album’s participants. The book includes some other odds-and-ends: contributor’s notes, a crossword puzzle, twenty questions with Stephen Merritt, etc… In the end, Beghtol’s take on 69 Love Songs is unlike any other volume in the 33 1/3 series, and it is easily one of the most joyous and celebratory. Simply put, if you love 69 Love Songs, you’ll find plenty to appreciate about this book.
#70 | Israel “Iz” Kamakawiwo’Ole’s Facing Future | Dan Kois*
This volume gets a bit of an unfair advantage because I’ve never really listened to Iz’s iconic album, and I knew little of the performer or Hawaiian music culture. As such, I found Dan Kois’ straight history of IZ and Hawaiian pop culture, through the lens of Facing Future, to be a fascinating read. Kois’ prose is loaded with warmth and empathy, and does a fine job of humanizing the legendary Iz, while illuminating the surprising depths of Hawaii’s music scene. The volume drags a bit during the song-by-song analysis, but all in all, Kois’ sharp prose and instincts on where to focus his readers’ attentions make this volume a pleasant surprise.
#71 | Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold us Back | Christopher R. Weingarten*
Christopher R. Weingarten is an asshole on Twitter. He is the definition of a troll, railing against artists and albums (and television shows, and movies, and everything) adored by fans and critics alike, all in the name of some indefinable, unrealistic notion of authenticity. As much as I dislike Weingarten’s web presence, however, I have to admit that his volume on Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold us Back is a highlight in the 33 1/3 series. Weingarten frames his discussion of the album through an analysis of its samples. The author doesn’t simply look at the original source of each sample, though, he also examines the political and social contexts surrounding the samples. The end result is a smart and sharp reading of It Takes a Nation of Millions… as a political album, not for its oft-discussed lyrics, but for its sounds and their origins.
#72 | Pavement’s Wowee Zowee | Bryan Charles*
On the surface, Charles’ Wowee Zowee might sound like any other 33 1/3 book; the volume combines personal fandom, band interviews, analysis, and a brief track-by-track walk-through in its attempt to get at some sense of truth or understanding about Wowee Zowee. What sets the volume apart from its peers, though, is Charles’ engaging prose and his ability to wind the book’s disparate parts into compelling narrative threads. What are these narrative threads? First, we get the author’s story, how he came to Pavement, how he, more reluctantly, came to Wowee Zowee, and then how the album unfolded throughout his life. Not always gripping subject matter, but in the hands of a sharp writer with a unique eye for detail and a fiction writer’s narrative chops, the memoir elements of the book are compelling. Second, we get a research narrative, of sorts, complete with a thesis that Charles sets out to either prove or disprove: “Underdog rock record greeted with head-wags and confusion stands the test of time to become fan favorite and indie rock classic” (22). With this thesis in mind, the author digs up old reviews and articles, then sets out to interview band members, label heads, and studio technicians. Rather than delving into straight rock journalism, however, a funny thing starts to happen–Charles’ Pavement fandom and Wowee Zowee’s importance to him, begin to bleed into the research narrative. We read as Charles stalls on his project due to nerves, chuckle at his frustrations dealing with Matador Records’ curmudgeonly Gerard Cosloy, and feel awkward for him when he trips up Stephen Malkmus with a question about lyrics. In the end, Charles’ Wowee Zowee is as much a narrative about the author’s process of writing this book as it is about the album itself. This might bother some readers, but I found the added narrative momentum a refreshing direction for the series.
#73 | AC/DC’s Highway to Hell | Joe Bonomo
Bonomo’s history of AC/DC and Highway to Hell makes for a fairly interesting volume in the series. Bonomo tells the AC/DC story with mostly tight prose and with a good eye for detail. At times, the book finds an interesting thread, at times, by exploring AC/DC through the lens of its fandom, which makes for weird, compelling reading. If this book has a fault, it is the same as many other books in the 33 1/3 series in that it tries to take on too much (history, recording, fan base, Bon Scott’s death, the unsettling “Night Prowler” incident) and not all of its parts come together as a focused whole. That said, this is a volume that has grown on me quite a bit since my first read, and what initially felt off putting in the book’s lack of focus, while still a bit irksome at times, also makes the book feel like an informal hangout for fans. Bonomo’s topnotch prose certainly helps sell that vibe.
#74 | Van Dyke Parks’ Song Cycle | Richard Henderson*
Richard Henderson’s volume on Song Cycle is as straight-forward a rock-doc volume as they come. For an album as under-appreciated, and under-represented in writing, this straight-forward approach manages to be both useful and effective. At times, Henderson’s deluge of information and formal prose makes the volume a bit dense, but more often than not, the author hits his mark. Highlights from the volume include a personal vignette about Henderson’s discovery of Song Cycle, and his examination of the controversial and bizarre attempts to market Parks’ difficult album. Even with these highlights, though, Henderson’s volume is more useful than dazzling, but for this volume, that’s fine, especially since it’s dealing with an album that has received as little coverage as Song Cycle.
#75 | Slint’s Spiderland | Scott Tennent*
The first three-quarters of Scott Tennent’s book on Slint’s Spiderland are easy to love and easier to get lost in. Tennent gives us a straight play-by-play of the members of Slint’s pre-Slint days, explains how they came together, then discusses the band’s early history leading up to and including the recording of Spiderland. This almost makes the book sound a bit underwhelming. It’s not. By staying out of the way of these stories and simply reporting the twists and turns that brought Slint together, Tennent brings these stories to life in ways that are exciting for anyone who has ever been an active participant (or spectator) in any kind-of-sort-of punk scene. In describing Slint’s history, Tennent taps in to something electric and fun: the feeling of being young and being either in or surrounded by good bands. There isn’t a feeling quite like it, and here Tennent does a nice job of making that excitement tangible. The only place where this volume stumbles is in the thirty page section dedicated to analyzing Spiderland. Tennent makes attempts to give the song-by-song analysis a through-thread by arguing that, though Slint were primarily known for their dynamics, those dynamics are only interesting because of the music’s overall complexity. Unfortunately, Tennent isn’t quite able to make this argument work, and we’re left with an occasionally interesting but largely descriptive chapter. In the end, Tennent brings us back to the riveting tale of Slint by closing the book with a description of the band’s oddly abrupt and frustrating dissolution.
#76 | Radiohead’s Kid A | Marvin Lin*
Lin’s volume on Radiohead’s Kid A is mostly fantastic. In particular, Lin’s section drawing on one of my own favorite musicologists, Christopher Small, in a discussion of the relationship between music and time, and the rhetorical treatment of music as an activity rather than an object, is incredibly smart and fun to read. Lin also touches on the aesthetics of Kid A (think Dada), Kid A’s impact on early 00’s rock culture, and the album’s initial critical reception, as well as the many, many revised opinions that emerged in the years following the album’s release. Were it not for Lin’s discussion of Napster and its already-talked-to-death impact on listening to Kid A, and his weird, out-of-place screed about genetically modified foods, this volume would be pretty flawless. As it stands, Marvin Lin’s—who, by the by, edits Tiny Mixtapes—take on Kid A is an excellent and interesting entry in the 33 1/3 series. Also of note, this volume marked the first time that a band was featured for a second book in the 33 1/3 series. Of course that honor went to Radiohead. Of course it did.
#77 | Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk | Rob Trucks*
When I first reviewed this book over on my blog, I adored the warning Rob Trucks offers at the beginning of this volume. I still do: “There’s a character named Rob in this book who functions in ways that may or may not clearly relate to Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk, and if you don’t feel like you can handle that, then by all means put this book down.” Trucks’ warning is fantastic and sad at the same time. I’ve read plenty of reviews of 33 1/3 books in which reviewers (generally of the Amazon variety) can’t stand that a book’s author appears in said book. I don’t know what these people want—studio logs? Basic histories? Strict textual analysis? Those are all fine and good, but they can also be a bit boring. Rob Trucks’ book on Tusk is anything but boring. Trucks builds a dual narrative between his own life and the writing and recording of Fleetwood Mac’s classic (and classically weird) album. These two narratives don’t always make their relationship to each other clear, but that’s part of the book’s charm. The only place where the book loses momentum is in a few of its “What We Talk About When We Talk About Tusk” (uggh—can we please let Carver be?) segments, which feature thoughts from other musicians (including AC Newman and Animal Collective’s Avey Tare) about Tusk. A couple of these segments—most notably, those belonging to Avey Tare and Walter Egan—are inconsequential at best. Otherwise, Trucks’ sharp writing, both about himself and Fleetwood Mac, make for an entertaining, thoughtful, and insightful read.
#78 | Nine Inch Nails’ Pretty Hate Machine | Daphne Carr*
Daphne Carr’s volume on Pretty Hate Machine is absolutely essential. Carr opens her book with a discussion of the Trench Coat Mafia and Columbine, then segues into a sociological study—complete with case studies and interviews—of the rust belt, its influence on Trent Reznor and, in return, Reznor’s influence on that same region’s angry and alienated young people. While Carr’s volume doesn’t quite reach the heights of Carl Wilson’s brilliant volume on Celine Dion and taste, her examination of disillusioned young people in decaying cities is haunting and heartbreaking. And while some of the content of Carr’s subject’s narrative can be a bit unsettling, the book never reads as exploitative or condescending, one of the benefits of letting those subjects speak for themselves through interview transcriptions. As with Wilson’s book, Carr’s is another that transcends the 33 1/3 series to become an important book in its own right—an engaging and compassionate sociological excavation of class and culture that sets out to tell, in Carr’s words, “the story of lower-middle-class white men in the Rust Belt through a narrative beginning with Trent’s birth and leading to the album’s birth, as a mirror of American transition from Industrial to Information Age labor” (10).
#79 | Ween’s Chocolate and Cheese | Hank Shteamer*
When I first read this volume, I wrote the following in a review on my blog: “Coming to Shteamer’s book, I was hoping for something a bit irreverent, a bit unruly, and maybe even a bit offensive. Instead, Shteamer provides us with a pleasant-enough, by-the-numbers rock book experience that, despite being more gray than brown (Ween people know what I’m talking about) does a nice job of situating Chocolate and Cheese as a pivotal moment of transition for Ween.” And, while I still feel the same about the book, while revisiting it for this capsule review, I found some of the volume’s anecdotes more entertaining, and some of Shteamer’s arguments more engaging than before. While the volume still plays it safe, which is a shame when dealing with Ween, ultimately, Shteamer does a nice job of pulling us into the worlds of Ween and Chocolate and Cheese.
#80 | Johnny Cash’s American Recordings | Tony Tost
Tony Tost’s volume on American Recordings is big. I’m not necessarily saying the book is big in size—though it is one of 33 1/3’s thicker volumes. Rather, Tony Tost has written a book about big ideas—spirituality, identity, myth—and how those big ideas play out in Johnny Cash the man, in Johnny Cash the character, and in the music made by the combination of the two. Tost’s analysis of Cash’s work is thorough and knowing, crammed with references to other musicians, American history, biblical allusions and everything else relevant to Cash’s project. By drawing on so much information and tugging on so many threads, Tost is able to create a vivid depiction of Johnny Cash, late in life, making new music with a clear sense of his own legacy and mythology in mind. While this all might sound a bit heady for a book about The Man in Black, rest assured: though Tost approaches Cash and his work with a scholar’s eye, the prose never feels dry or “academic.” Without a doubt, Tost’s take on American Recordings has earned a place among the best titles in the 33 1/3 series.
#81 | The Rolling Stones’ Some Girls | Cyrus R.K. Patell*
Cyrus R.K. Patell’s volume on The Rolling Stones’ Some Girls is a bit strange. In the acknowledgements, Patell sets his volume up as something of a companion piece to Bryan Waterman’s excellent volume on Marquee Moon. The “two volumes,” Patell suggests, “might work in tandem with one another as accounts of the late Seventies in New York.” This seems like an interesting premise—if only that premise were realized. What follows is a bit maddening—we get the compelling story of Patell’s purchase of Some Girls, which revolves around the death of a beloved French teacher, then a contextual overview of the Stones’ career, a track-by-track analysis of Some Girls, and then some scattershot postscripts about the album’s reception. The prose is tight and smart, and Patell does a fine job of bringing a great deal of research together into his own focused exploration of Some Girls, but the volume never really fulfills that promise of being about New York in the late Seventies. The book has moments—Patell offers some history of Area 54 (and its potential influence on “Miss You,”), New York’s dire struggles in the 70’s, and even some talk of the Stones’ 1978 Saturday Night Live appearance, but these 70’s details always seem somewhat forced into the narrative. We see why New York was important to the Stones at this point in their career, but that importance never really amounts to anything in Patell’s argument. So, while Patell’s book is largely engaging, one of the things he promises as a primary focus falls somewhat flat, which, despite Patell’s many successes, results in a reading experience that is at least a little bit disappointing.
#82 | Dinosaur jr.’s You’re Living All Over Me | Nick Attfield*
Structurally and tonally, Attfield’s volume is pitch perfect—the book opens with a history of Dinosaur jr. and You’re Living All Over Me, then shifts gears to present a series of six focused mini-essays that explore specific aspects of the band and their album. The section titled “Rabbits” is mostly about the album’s first song, but focuses on how that song sets a tone and establishes the inscrutability that has always been a significant element of the band’s sound. Another section, “Strings,” focuses on J. Mascis’ guitar solos and Dinosaur jr.’s reputation for bringing the guitar solo back to the underground. In the book’s most scandalous mini-essay, “Pressures,” Attfield explores the tensions between Dinosaur jr.’s members while simultaneously undercutting many of the rumors and myths that have surrounded the band for decades. This structure, first providing history and context, then examining Dinosaur jr. and You’re Living All Over Me from several specific angles through mini-essays, is ingenious and makes for an entertaining (helped in part by Attfield’s sharp prose and dry humor) and illuminating read.
#83 | Televisions’ Marquee Moon | Bryan Waterman*
There might not be much new information in Waterman’s take on Marquee Moon, but the book serves as a fairly thorough history of the 70’s New York punk scene with regards to the key players and events leading up to Television’s seminal album. I appreciate Waterman’s scholarly approach to New York punk’s history and his penchant to, by and large, avoid sensationalizing the interpersonal drama surrounding Tom Verlaine, Richard Lloyd, and Richard Hell. This volume definitely plays it safe, but it’s also one of the smarter, more effective books in the 33 1/3 series.
#84 | Aretha Franklin’s Amazing Grace | Aaron Cohen*
There is a particular style of 33 1/3 book that can be both rewarding and wildly frustrating. I refer to these as “Secondary Sourcebooks.” Such volumes are defined by a writer’s over-reliance on research to the point where the book is overwhelmed by block quotes and footnotes, the author’s own voice and ideas relegated to the background. This approach can be rewarding because it turns a 33 1/3 book into a sort of compendium, or greatest hits of noteworthy facts and opinions about an album. The approach can be frustrating, however, when the patchwork of secondary sources buries the arguments and insights the author might be trying to convey. Aaron Cohen’s volume on Amazing Grace is a perfect example of a middling Seconday Sourcebook, as it is both bursting with essential facts and quotes, while losing sight of its own author as it goes. I think there are some interesting insights into the political and social importance of Amazing Grace—an album that found Franklin re-connecting with her gospel roots and, in the process, championing one of the few styles of music that hadn’t yet been fully co-opted by mainstream popular culture—buried in this volume, but any argument is mostly inferred as Cohen spends most of the book quoting musicians, producers, and critics in an attempt to tell the story of how Amazing Grace was made. The end result is informative and interesting, to a point. I wish only that Cohen could have untangled himself from his research a bit and dug deeper into why Amazing Grace is such an important album.
#85 | Portishead’s Dummy | R. J. Wheaton*
I’m of two minds with regards to R.J. Wheaton’s volume on Dummy—on one hand, the volume is impressive as a thorough and comprehensive history/analysis/interpretation /etc… of Dummy and the culture surrounding it. On the other hand, coming in at over 220 pages and working from an almost free-associative organizational scheme, Wheaton’s Dummy can be a bit difficult to navigate. Ultimately, both responses to Wheaton’s volume are valid—it is one of the most thorough and informative volumes in the 33 1/3 series, but it also feels, at times, like a chore to read as mountains of context and background are crushed together without much of a central argument or push. That this is (I believe) the longest book in the series also makes the reading a bit of a slog. So what’s the take away, here? Wheaton’s Dummy feels like homework—I learned a lot, but it required a bit more effort than I would have liked. Still, for those who eat/sleep/breathe Portishead, I suspect this volume’s thoroughness will be viewed as an unqualified success.
#86 | Talking Heads’ Fear of Music | Jonathan Lethem*
I had high expectations for Lethem’s volume on Fear of Music. I was not disappointed. The volume alternates its chapters between questions about the overarching nature of the album (“Is Fear of Music a David Byrne Album?” “Is Fear of Music a Science Fiction Record?” “Is Fear of Music an Asperger’s Record?”) and dense readings of the album’s songs. Though the book feels disjointed in terms of structure, the rapidity of the sections and abrupt changes in direction all somehow lead us down three focused paths: Lethem’s changing relationship, over time, with Fear of Music, the album’s place as a turning point in the life of Talking Heads, and the album’s obsessive thematic variations on fear. Lethem maintains and grows these themes through tight prose and a plethora of cultural references that make this slim (140 pages) volume feel almost encyclopedic, not unlike Fear of Music, itself. Lethem’s narrative skills are on display as well—all of his critical hand-wringing and philosophical detours come together in a climax that melds the personal with the analytical in a way I’m not sure any of the other 33 1/3 books have managed. With Fear of Music, Lethem has written one of the series’ finest volumes.
#88 | They Might Be Giants’s Flood | S. Alexander Reed and Philip Sandifer
Within the first twenty pages of Reed and Sandifer’s volume on Flood, I knew I was reading a new “top ten” volume in the 33 1/3 series. From the very beginning, the authors clearly focus their discussion of Flood around the metaphorical idea of “flooding,” (ie., a flood of ideas) in the process bringing in bits about early nineties geek culture, They Might Be Giants’s history, representations of childhood, music tech, American history, and even an origin story of the authors’ friendship, which, as might be expected, involves an academic summer camp where a room full of sweaty adolescents would bond by dancing to “Birdhouse in Your Soul” at a weekly social gathering. Like the album about which they’re writing, Reed and Sandifer explore an impressive number of ideas with abundant and entertaining wit, which keeps the proceedings entertaining, even when they turn a bit academic as in the chapter on childhood which brings in developmental models (Piaget!) that I haven’t really thought about since I was an undergraduate education major. All that being said, if I knew within the first twenty pages that Flood would be a “top ten” entry in the 33 1/3 series, I knew within the first forty pages that it would be a “top five” entry. I figured this out when I got to the authors’ brilliant reading of “Whistling in the Dark,” which they describe as pitting “scrappy rebellion against simple conformist pleasures,” and “a frank wariness toward the competence of actual individuals”–a complex reading which Reed and Sadinfer go on to characterize as a “Dagwood sandwich, its pickles and peanut butter aromatically betraying the incongruence of unity and diversity as values.” While the authors’ wit and playfulness makes this volume one of the more enjoyable volumes in the 33 1/3 series, it is Reed and Sandifer’s ability to guide us so effortlessly through the various contexts surrounding Flood–from the rise of BBS’s, to the era’s video and computer games, to paranoia, to science, to Tiny Toons and back again–that makes it one of the series’s more interesting books, as well.