Friday, April 25, 2008

Man On Wire

My book on Shoot Out The Lights is a work of fiction, although it deals with real people (like, say, Richard and Linda Thompson) and real events (like, say, any of those that reference Richard and Linda Thompson). One of the real people who crops up in the book is Philippe Petit, the high-wire artist who walked between the World Trade Center in 1974, between the recording and release of one of Richard & Linda Thompson's two great tightrope-as-metaphor songs, "The Great Valerio." In researching Philippe's stunning walk, I mostly relied on his memoir To Reach The Clouds. After I'd finished the draft, my wife found a lovely children's book by Mordicai Gerstein called The Man Who Walked Between The Towers. This morning I read that someone's made a movie about Petit called Man On Wire. It's playing at the Tribeca Film Festival four times over the next week, and man, I wish I lived in New York. I can't imagine that this could be anything but incredible.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

33 1/3 No. 32: Miles Marshall Lewis - Sly & The Family Stone's There's A Riot Goin' On

Lewis starts his book with an extended conversation between himself and (presumably) his dad about what Sly meant. He launches into the context of Sly Stone's career and then how There's A Riot Goin' On fits in. There's a lot of discussion about the relative worth of each album and the tragic trajectory of Sly's life, compared to the uplift of his music. Well, the uplift prior to Riot.

I should point out that I love this album, and this is the book that brought me around on the issue of breaking the MOJO article mold. I bought a copy of the book while on vacation in the Pacific Northwest and ended up giving it to a friend after I read it. At the time, I'd just started Shoot Out The Lights, and I was still committed to writing a journalistic take on the album. I'd read Piper At The Gates Of Dawn a while before and disliked the deviation into the author's personality. But Lewis's book convinced me that a 33 1/3 book could be personal and still work. So I'm not going to review Piper here until I re-read it, and I can thoroughly recommend this one.

Style of book: personal, contextual, meditative, sympathetic.

33 1/3 No. 31: Ben Sisario - The Pixies' Doolittle

Doolittle was one of my favorite albums in my junior year of high school. I had a cassette I'd made with Doolittle on one side and Surfer Rosa on the other, and I could just let it flip around and around in my car without changing it for weeks.

Sisario spoke to all the Pixies except Kim Deal, getting firsthand information about the making of the album and the band dynamic. He offers an interpretation of the lyrics, but for the most part, it's a journalistic approach. He's an entertaining guide, and it's an entertaining book about a phenomenal album.

Style of the book: Journalism and song analysis.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

In Richard Thompson news, his website reports:

For those who have tickets to the upcoming April shows, we're sorry to bear
the bad news that Richard received a scorpion sting while on vacation in Mexico,
incapacitating his right hand for an expected 2-3 weeks. Reluctantly, he is
forced to postpone all of the April shows until later in the year, but expects
to be back up to speed in time for the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival
on May 2. Stand by for news of rescheduled dates.


Monday, April 7, 2008

Continuum sent me the proofs of the book on Friday. I've been going through them for changes and have a few minimal ones that I plan to send back tomorrow. Everything looks fantastic! It's especially thrilling to see my handiwork in the ultracool 33 1/3 font and style.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

33 1/3 No. 29: Kim Cooper - Neutral Milk Hotel's In The Aeroplane Over The Sea

Here's what I had to say about Kim's book back in December 2005:
If you're like me, you love Neutral Milk Hotel's In The Aeroplane Over The Sea with a passion that few other albums achieve, and you have been looking forward to the 33 1/3 book for as long as you've known about it. Well, ok, there's probably only 1000 or so people in the country who fall into that category, but MAN, what a great album and what a great book about it.

Kim Cooper (the editrix of Lost In The Grooves, Bubblegum Music Is The Naked Truth, and Scram Magazine) gets to the heart of the story about this album. As NMH fans know, Jeff Mangum produced only one prior NMH album, On Avery Island (released in 1996), which was pretty much created without a band, then brought in a group that became the NMH that we all knew and loved. NMH put out the amazing In The Aeroplane Over The Sea in 1998, went on a short tour to support the album, then more or less disappeared. I remember when they came to Chapel Hill on that tour, but I didn't go see them because I thought I'd have plenty of options to see them again. I was wrong.

Cooper spent some time with Jeff Mangum while researching the book, and it shows, despite his unwillingness to be directly quoted, in her insight into his elusive genius. She also spoke with the other major members and friends of the band, who provided her with the in-stories that show exactly how this band bottled the lightning in 1998. Cooper's depth of research and sympathy for her subject are wonderful to read.

I probably should have mentioned that I owe Kim Cooper a huge debt of gratitude for including my contributions in the music encyclopedia Lost In The Grooves, which she and David Smay edited back in 2004. Despite my omission (which I mentioned elsewhere), I thought In The Aeroplane was a tremendous book about an underappreciated gem. The album has been growing in notoriety since, partially - I hope - due to Kim's book.

At the end of the review, I said:
I pitched Richard and Linda Thompson's Shoot Out The Lights to 33 1/3, and I can say with confidence that this is exactly the sort of book I'd attempt to write about that album if the editors give me the go-ahead. Some of the other 33 1/3 books have been too much about the ego of the author; Cooper disappears into her narrative, and her book is infinitely better for it.

While it was true that I pitched Shoot Out The Lights to Continuum in the oral-historical style with a desire to emulate Kim's book, I wrote a very different book, part novella and part album review. Some people will certainly be disappointed. Also, I've grown to appreciate the more personal 33 1/3 books since, and regret the comment about the other author's egos. That was unfair and untrue.

Style of book: journalistic, enthusiastic. Generally refuses lyrical analysis. This kind of journalistic approach is especially great for an album like In The Aeroplane Under The Sea, which is somewhat obscure by design.

33 1/3 No. 22: J. Niimi - REM's Murmur

Niimi's book combines several of the strategies seen thus far. There's a MOJO-style look at the recording of the album, a short memoir about the author's own connection to the music, and a track-by-track analysis of the music.

Incidentally, I saw REM on the Colbert Report last night, and even though the music they're playing now is so pale in comparison to their auspicious beginnings, it reminded me (again) just how important they were to me when I was young. For Southern white kids wanting to play college rock (while wearing onions on our belts, as was the style of the day), REM made it seem like anything was possible.

Style of the book: MOJO-style journalism, song analysis, personal introspection. Well-rounded!

33 1/3 No. 21: Franklin Bruno - Elvis Costello's Armed Forces

Here's what I had to say about this book back in March 2006:
Bruno's book doesn't seem to have a central thesis about the album, but is full of fascinating little details and detours (rather like Bruno's music, I think) and similarly heightened my appreciation for an album already near the top of my personal pantheon.

I haven't re-read it since, so I don't have anything new to add.

Style of book: thoughtful, ruminating, blending journalistic detail with lyrical and contextual analysis of the album.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

33 1/3 No. 16: Colin Meloy - The Replacements' Let It Be

Meloy's 33 1/3 book is a memoir about growing up in Montana and how the Replacements reached him when some other bands didn't. As a fan of his band The Decemberists, I found it interesting, but not too surprising, that he'd find their sort of emotional folk-based punk resonant.

Anyway, this one won't tell fans anything new about the Replacements, but I suspect most Replacements fans love the hell out of Let It Be already. It's easily one of my favorite albums, and one of the most formative tastemakers from my teenage years. I'm a couple of years older than Meloy, but as a guy who grew up in the cultural wasteland of southwest Alabama, I get where he was coming from, and I appreciate the chance to share that with him.

Style of book: memoir, almost no journalism. Mostly about Meloy's youth and teenage years, and it's written with panache, although it is a bit too verbose for its own good at times.

33 1/3 No. 4: Andy Miller - The Kinks' The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society

Here's what I had to say about this book back in Feb 2005:

Continuum's 33 1/3 series has writers and musicians writing about albums they love, and TKATVGPS (the album) is certainly a worthy subject for such a book, being one of the finest albums ever recorded. As much as I've loved this album in my life, my personal connection to it is even greater since I played in a cover band last year that did this album, start to finish, and pretty much nothing besides.

Miller discusses the circumstances surrounding the album's recording (the Kinks in crisis point, unable to tour America, and bassist Pete Quaife about to quit the band) and the themes of the songs. TKATVGPS is a concept album about memory and regret, one of the best examples of idiosyncratic songwriting and point of view with a inestimable influence on indie rock, with a few tracks that veer from the main concept into loosely-connected character studies. Forget Lola and Arthur, this is Ray Davies at the top of his game.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of Miller's discussion was the context for the least-coherent song on the album, "Last of the Steam-Powered Trains." Miller argues that the "Smokestack Lightnin'" riff was intended to lightly mock the British bands, contemporaries of the Kinks, who got their start playing American blues songs and later embraced pop songcraft. Like the best of Ray Davies songs, though, the sarcasm is underscored by a deep humanity and compassion for the subject. Although the singer lives in a museum, he's driven insane by all the peaceful living because he simply wants to be a good old renegade.

Anyway, enough dancing about architecture. Miller's book was a fun, short read about an album that belongs in every music fan's home.

Style of book: Long MOJO article, journalistic.

33 1/3 No. 2: Andrew Hultkrans - Love's Forever Changes

This is what I had to say about this book back in Feb 2006:

Hultkrans's book is much more enjoyable than Barney Hoskins's Arthur Lee book, which I read last year, although he uses Hoskins as a source. Hultkrans is mainly concerned with the voice of Forever Changes, a voice he calls prophetic in the Old Testament sense. I'm a little distanced from my initial impressions now, but I have a new, greater appreciation for the lyrics of the album, which I had already thought fantastic. "Live and Let Live," in particular, sounds even more like the end of the world, and maybe it is.

Style of book: New interpretation of lyrics. Lots of context about late-60s LA rock scene. Thoughtful descriptions of Arthur Lee and Bryan MacLean, the primary songwriters for Love. More interpretative than journalistic.

33 1/3 books I've known

I'm going to provide a short guide to 33 1/3 books I've read, for your reading pleasure. I think all 33 1/3 books are worth reading and the other authors are my colleagues now, so I'm not going to pan any one of them. But I'll briefly mention the overall style and aspects of the book that stick out in my head.