For those unfamiliar, each 33 ⅓ book provides in-depth analysis of a single album of popular music (so far, from 1960 onward), a kind of Classic Albums documentary in book form. In our age of instantaneous content consumption, the series offers a chance for critical reflection on a smorgasbord music, ranging from Dusty Springfield to Public Enemy to Elliott Smith, which inspires strong feelings in a wide variety of authors, including music journalists, novelists and musicians (The Decemberists’ Colin Meloy, Scud Mountain Boys’/Pernice Brothers’ Joe Pernice, and Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle have all contributed). The books are physically small — about half the size of an ordinary paperback — and fall (in most cases) at just the right length to give readers a deeper perspective on a record without bogging down in minutiae.
In the spirit of summertime adventures, I decided to school myself on titles in the series that I hadn’t read yet. Sadly, this meant skipping the volumes on Murmur, Bee Thousand, Low and others I’d already enjoyed (MTSU professor John Dougan deserves a shout-out for his excellent work on The Who Sell Out; also see Sean Maloney’s review of his more recent book on The Prisonaires), but with 86 titles and counting after 10 years in the business, there were bound to be some treasures waiting to be uncovered.
Dinosaur Jr.: You’re Living All Over Me
Byron Coley’s liner notes to the reissue of Dino’s second record refer to it as a contender for “the best guitar album ever waxed,” and I’m not inclined to disagree. Author Nick Attfield, who lectures in the music department at Worcester College (Oxford, UK, not Worcester, Mass.), clearly loves the record, but is not in awe of it — a beef I have with Alex Green’s look at The Stone Roses earlier in the series, which seemed to follow every criticism with some kind of apology. Attfield exposes the band’s full names, doesn’t mince around guitar hero J. Mascis’ mediocre singing voice, and even calls him out on the Deep Wound sweater that his mom must have knitted for him, but no criticism or praise is labored. Every point helps to place the record in its historic context without too much nostalgia; you get a sense of life in the suburbs in the ‘80s, but it’s never the good ol’ days or the bad ol’ days. Similarly, there’s a nice smattering of technical details about gear and recording, but not too much, and all woven in to help create a frame of reference for the album.
Talking Heads: Fear of Music
The most recent entry in the series comes to us courtesy of Jonathan Lethem, a Brooklyn native whose current gig is as a creative writing professor at Pomona College, a post once held by the late David Foster Wallace. Lethem has written on music before, but the bulk of his work is in science fiction and detective stories, and he brings a strongly personal perspective to bear here. Not exactly a love letter, this installment reveals a series of creative approaches to interpreting the Heads’ most inventive album to that point — an idiosyncratic, confrontational, sometimes self-contradictory collection of songs that are equally intriguing and engaging, a stranger you’d like to know more about. Like the album, Lethem’s style can be a little off-putting at first — if you’re looking for fare like the origins of the songs or discussions of the recording process, the section that mentions Fear of Music in David Byrne’s How Music Works is actually more enlightening (ironic, since Byrne proclaims his book isn’t meant to be autobiographical at all). If Lethem referencing his 15-year-old self in third-person bothers you, or it wigs you out for an author to treat the album itself as a character, this definitely ain’t your book. But as an exercise in how people relate to an album as a work of art, it’s a fascinating if sometimes challenging read (beware sudden shifts in perspective, ye who venture here).
Public Enemy: It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back
Author Christopher Weingarten is a career music writer who’s been published in numerous online and print ‘zines, including Village Voice, Spin, and The Source. Whether you’re a fan or someone with a casual interest in hip-hop, this book puts a lot of pieces together. In addition to chronicling PE’s 1988 breakthrough in the political, social and music business climate of the time, it contextualizes hip-hop as a multifaceted art within the whole history of music in a very accessible way. Though Weingarten doesn’t present much firsthand material, he cites 80+ interviews and articles featuring Def Jam’s Rick Rubin and Russell Simmons, Hank and Keith Shocklee of The Bomb Squad, and the eminently quotable Chuck D, whose interviews can sometimes be an important part of the album’s story. Some of the book’s best moments come from digging into the significance of the samples used by The Bomb Squad in making the record’s sometimes unsettling music bed; key snippets from James Brown, Isaac Hayes, Parliament, the Wattstax concert album, and even Slayer’s Reign in Blood are more than just a skeleton for D to rap over. By exploring them in depth, Weingarten shows how they became the DNA of this staggering work of politically charged art.
Céline Dion: Let’s Talk About Love
The subtitle to this one should also be printed: A Journey to the End of Taste. Author Carl Wilson is not a Beach Boy, but a writer from Canada’s French-speaking province, Quebec; whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Slate, The Globe and Mail, Canada’s national newspaper, where he is on the editorial staff. Sharing Dion’s Quebecois identity becomes significant, giving Wilson firsthand experience with some of the cultural facets that influence her work. Like me, Wilson is decidedly not a Céline fan, finding her music simultaneously sanitized and melodramatic. But for something so vanilla, it is both reviled and revered by a shedload of people, and such a voluminous emotional response is grounds for investigation, a path Wilson follows into an incredibly thorough and accessible discussion of why people like what they like, and hate what they hate. Dion fans will be disappointed if they expect detailed analysis of the album itself (which stands out among her monster hits because it includes the theme from Titanic, “My Heart Will Go On”), but if you’re in the market for a beginning primer on cultural philosophy with guest appearances by Hume, Hegel, Kant and a slew of more recent social and cultural analysts, you’ve come to the right place. Some bits in the middle may be a tiny bit dry for a day at the beach, but it’s a valuable addition to the bookshelf of any curious music lover.