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Review: Young Marble Giants’ Colossal Youth by Michael Blair and Joe Bucciero June 3, 2017

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Cover of Colossal YouthAn overdue Netgalley review for a long overdue book.

I first read about Young Marble Giants back around 1980. I think Lou Stathis reviewed it and made it sound pretty good. But it was 1980. I never saw a copy of Colossal Youth anywhere, so it pretty much faded out of my mind. Then, in the mid-1990s, I found a copy of Salad Days, a demo collection, in a record store, and bought it. It was pretty good, and by then it was a lot easier to order albums, so I got Colossal Youth on CD, and it was one of those albums that just fits in perfectly with everything else I listen to.

But enough about me. Colossal Youth is one of those postpunk albums that could be called antipunk, given its quiet songs, coolly amateurish and deadpan female vocals, primitive drum machine, etc, but it probably would never have existed without punk, and Hole’s cover of their song “Credit in the Straight World” shows that it isn’t really that hard to bring some YMG into noisier territory.

Everyone from Kurt Cobain to the xx, it seems, has spoken of the influence Colossal Youth had on them; you can hear it in a lot of places, odd though it must have sounded in 1979. This book sets the album and band in context as a trio from Cardiff, removed in many ways from punk, but arguably even further removed from whatever the mainstream was there at the time. It’s not one of those 33 1/3 books that talk much about the studio experience or the gear or any of the technical side of making the album, because all they had was a homemade drum machine, a ring modulator, a bass guitar, an organ, and an electric guitar — and with only three band members, few if any songs used all of those instruments, and the album only took a week or so to record.

Instead, the book talks about the music, about the contrast between the emotional lyrics written by a male band member and the unemotional way they were sung by the female band member; about being from Cardiff instead of London; about the feminism and politics that observers picked up on even when they weren’t intentional. There’s a bit about what the band members did before and after, which is especially helpful for a band with only one proper album in their discography.

The book’s a bit academic at times. You’ll see references to Susan Sontag, Julia Kristeva, Dick Hebdige, and others. But it’s still always readable and accessible.

Overall, a much-needed tribute to an album you should know.

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Review: Angelo Badalamenti’s Soundtrack from Twin Peaks by Clare Nina Norelli February 9, 2017

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cover103893-mediumYes, it’s another Netgalley review, written from a free advance e-copy.

A necessary addition to the growing Twin Peaks bookshelf, this short but informative book does a lot in its limited space.

It’s not just a look at the soundtrack album. Like many 33 1/3 books, this one puts the album in context, in this case as part of Angelo Badalamenti’s work, as part of David Lynch’s world, as part of a cult television series, and as music. Moving beyond the soundtrack, she writes about how the show used different versions of recurring themes and motifs linked with moods and characters. She includes the music from Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, and the many pieces of music made available in recent years through the Twin Peaks Archive soundtrack project, which released a couple of hundred tracks that did not appear on the commercially released soundtrack albums.

More than the coming revival of the TV series, it’s the release of so much music from the original series that makes this such a timely book. Not that you have to be a fan of the TV series to love this music; as Norelli comments, the Twin Peaks soundtrack stands on its own. It’s not a grubby cash-in, nor is it a collection of music that doesn’t stand up to listening without the visuals. Overall, a good addition to both the 33 1/3 line and the small body of books about Twin Peaks.

(And, speaking of the Twin Peaks Archive, I don’t know how long this deal will be available or how much economic sense it makes, but you can get a lot of this music dirt cheap, legally, and legitimately. If you’ve read this far and don’t have this already, what are you waiting for?)

Review: The Jesus and Mary Chain’s Psychocandy by Paula Mejia August 10, 2016

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Yes! Netgalley again! This is a review written in exchange for an advance electronic galley from the publisher via Netgalley.jamcp

So here’s a book from the 33 1/3 series, bringers of wonders and delights and occasional wtf moments, about an album I love.

Which is why I want to love this book: I love Psychocandy. I saw the Jesus and Mary Chain on TV in 1985. A month or two later, I bought the 7″ of “Never Understand” and a friend bought the 7″ of “Upside Down.” They were great, but then came Psychocandy and the sharp left turn of “Just Like Honey” and I was even more impressed. I bought all their albums, saw them on the Automatic tour, etc.

So I want to love this book because I love the album. But it feels like I’m the wrong audience for it. Instead of a deep dive into the album, it feels more like a book by and for people half my age discovering a classic album long after it was released. I assume that’s the reason for the Britney Spears stuff. Situating the JAMC’s catchy noise merits a discussion of pop, maybe even bubblegum pop (though the usual touchstones are the Beach Boys and girl groups for that side of their sound), but the pop discussion generally seems a bit historically off and very American. I’m not British but it’s always seemed to me that the UK and the US don’t necessarily mean quite the same thing when they use the word “pop.”

Mejia reads like she had fun writing the book, going off on digressions about candy, falling into hipster or rockcrit-speak occasionally (“punk-surged”?), and clearly expressing her own enthusiasm for what we agree is a great album. But while she did research and interviews, I don’t feel I encountered much that was new to me. There’s no rule that a book in the 33 1/3 series has to talk about recording studios, equipment, production techniques, unreleased tracks, or the like, but I could have used a bit more focus on the record.

Still, considering some of the albums the 33 1/3 people have chosen to cover in recent books, this is a positive sign and a readable, occasionally fun book. If it keeps people under 50 interested in the Jesus and Mary Chain, job well done.

Review: Blondie’s Parallel Lines by Kembrew McLeod April 22, 2016

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cover82319-mediumAnother Netgalley review!

There’s no shortage of books about the late 1970s New York scene, from Please Kill Me to loads of Ramones books to several others in the 33 1/3 series. McLeod covers some of the same territory in the early pages — the Velvet Underground, Max’s Kansas City, CBGB, the New York Dolls, Wayne County, Suicide, Television, Patti Smith, etc — but soon enough turns his attention to Debbie Harry and Chris Stein and the development of Blondie and its predecessor bands. The book offers a quick history of Blondie up to the breakup and mentions the reunion, but it largely focuses on the making of and reception to Parallel Lines.

Blondie was one of the few bands from the punk scene to break out into mass commercial success. They were never a noisy punk band, more on the performance art side, but they also loved classic girl group pop, and were willing to work with a big producer who could push them to the next level. And it all came together on this album.

McLeod differentiates his book from other NY scene books by looking at the punk and disco scenes, what it meant for Blondie to record a song like “Heart of Glass,” etc, and how Blondie navigated issues of gender and sexuality. He discusses camp and the way Debbie Harry, whose image was originally intended ironically, was turned into a conventional sex symbol as part of the move to the mainstream, not entirely the way Blondie intended, despite Harry’s openness and positivity about sex. He also occasionally points out how another New York bottle blonde would build on this in the 1980s.

There are a couple of moments where McLeod starts sounding like he’s writing a cultural studies paper, and others where he gets slangy and bloggy, but in general he maintains a straightforward and readable prose style. He also interviewed a lot of the key players, including most of Blondie.

All in all, not the flashiest entry in the 33 1/3 series, but a solid and thoughtful exploration of a great moment in pop, disco, and punk/new wave history.

Review: Dead Kennedys’ Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables March 29, 2015

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Another Netgalley review in exchange for free read.

Though a lot of the books in the 33 1/3 series just tell the story of the album on the front cover, many don’t, instead presenting fact or fiction inspired in some way by the album. So I should point out that anyone looking for detailed information about this album — differences between the different versions, stories behind all the songs, recording info, etc — won’t find a lot of that here.

This book is more about San Francisco city politics in the late 1970s, the romanticization of punk as a revolutionary force, the genius of Jello Biafra and the band’s combining shock tactic lyrics with humour and actual political points.

It’s certainly educational in its San Francisco urban history (a lot of the stuff about the punk scene is familiar from other sources), but Foley’s partisan take on things sometimes leads him to overdo it. Even when I agree with him, which is often, it feels like he’s preaching to the converted rather than making a cogent argument.

This book won’t do much for readers interested in Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables as a musical recording. It’s more for those who want to believe in punk as a politically important and meaningful cultural moment. I’ve been one of those people, though I doubt I still have the paper I wrote on the subject at university. Ultimately, though, as much as I enjoy this album and as much as I still love a lot of old and new punk rock, it’s still an album never heard or heard of by the vast majority of people I know, then or now. It might be better to make a case for the political and cultural importance of the band and the album by looking at those who’ve been influenced or inspired by it. I also would have liked to learn more about the band members, and what happened to them since this album.

Not entirely my thing, but in 2015 it’s almost refreshing to see this kind of idealistic punk ranting. Makes for a bit of contrast with the cynical, sarcastic tone of the Dead Kennedys’ songs themselves.

Review: Devo’s Freedom of Choice March 28, 2015

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Review written in exchange for a Netgalley advance e-read.

I still remember the day in 1980 when I bought Devo’s Freedom of Choice album. They were one of my favourite bands at the time, and this was a definite breakthrough album for them. The success of “Whip It” took everyone, including Devo, by surprise. (For what it’s worth, my favourite songs on this album are the title track and two others, “Gates of Steel” and “Snowball.”)

Evie Nagy’s book on Freedom of Choice is a solid look back at the point where everything changed for Devo. As 33 1/3 books go, this is one of the more straightforward ones, built on research and interviews with a lot of the key players, looking at the album’s creation and its place in Devo’s career, It’s a good read, and Nagy gets Devo’s mix of nerdishness, humour, and serious political intent. Unlike a few books in this series that keep an extremely tight focus on the album at hand (or go spiraling off in unexpected directions), this one provides history on the band, leading up to and following on from Freedom of Choice.

1980 was a strange time. New wave had caught on enough, and Devo had trimmed out some of its experimentalism enough, that the band that was too weird for a lot of people a year before was suddenly just weird enough to be a cool, fun party music band, like the B-52s. But the Reagan era was about to start, and Devo struggled with being expected to produce another hit record while also wanting to wanting to push their messages to an audience that seemed to miss the point entirely.

Nagy does a solid job bringing together new quotes from Devo members, others involved with the album, other people from Devo’s circle over the years, and other musicians as well as bits from contemporary articles to tell a story that’s well worth reading for anyone interested alternative music or 1980s pop culture.

33 1/3: Pink Flag (2009) May 27, 2009

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Wilson Neate: Pink Flag

Wilson Neate: Pink Flag

Jeffrey Roesgen’s book on the Pogues (below) shows how good a book about an album can be by doing the unexpected. Wilson Neate shows how good a book about an album can be by writing a conventional work that does everything it needs to.

Pink Flag is Wire’s first album. It was released as part of the first wave of UK punk in 1977, and it’s been a touchstone for a lot of musicians ever since. However, it’s neither typical of UK ’77 punk nor of Wire’s long career, so Neate uses a fair bit of the book to put the band and the album in context. With 21 short, punchy, loud guitar songs on one LP, Pink Flag audibly shares a great deal with several other punk albums of the time, but according to band members and others quoted in the book, Wire was seen as something outside the core punk scene, being a bit older and more self-consciously approaching music as an art project, rejecting conventions of rock and roll that were still largely unchallenged by punk rebellion. At the same time, the loud racket of punk, much of it played by people just learning to play their instruments, was an obvious opportunity for a bunch of art school types who were also just learning to play instruments. They made a lot more sense in the punk context than they would have elsewhere at the time.

I think Neate somewhat overstates the exceptionalist case for Wire and Pink Flag. Few of the bands worth remembering from punk’s first wave adhered to a rigid and rockist punk formula through their careers. After the Sex Pistols, John Lydon went on to the very different Public Image Ltd; Howard Devoto left the Buzzcocks and formed Magazine; the Clash, the Buzzcocks, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and others moved away from the core punk sound after an album or two, building on new influences and developing new styles. Wire was hardly the only band of that time to do something recognizable as a punk album and then go off into a dozen different directions. Still, it’s not exaggerating to say that Wire’s members have approached their career over the decades as more of an art project than a rock band, and many of their solo projects make that even more obvious.

Anyway, in addition to providing that context, Neate tells the history of the band and the work they did on the way to recording Pink Flag. He provides a lot of detail on the recording of the album, discussing all the songs individually, and he quotes the band members, the producer, and a number of other musicians along the way. Wire’s members seem to have been quite candid and open in their discussions, and there’s a lot of interesting information here. Other people Neate talked to include Pink Flag producer Mike Thorne, later musicians like Henry Rollins (Black Flag, the Rollins Band), Ian McKaye (Minor Threat, Fugazi) and Graham Coxon (Blur), rock writer Jon Savage, and many many others. the book provides a knowledgeable and intelligent look at the band from the inside and the outside.

I read somewhere that there was originally some interest in doing a book on Wire’s third album 154 instead of Pink Flag, but the latter is much more well known in America and is more often mentioned as a key influence. Fortunately, there is another book, Wire: Everybody Loves a History, which also features a lot of input from band members and covers the band and  various side projects up to 1990 or so. It’s out of print and may be hard to find, but it’s worth tracking down. It’d be great to see an updated edition some day. Another writer has recently produced a book on Wire, but from all reports it’s replete with errors and the band doesn’t recommend it.

33 1/3: Daydream Nation (2007) May 7, 2009

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Daydream Nation

Matthew Stearns: Daydream Nation

Sonic Youth’s 1988 album Daydream Nation is one of the great rock albums of the last 25 years. It’s the record on which, after releasing several noisy, experimental, and sometimes inconsistent — but generally good — albums, Sonic Youth took a bold step towards accessibility without selling out. There’s noise and strange beauty, but there are also some great rock songs there, too.

Daydream Nation was well received on its release and got a lot of good reviews, which is how it ended up being the first SY album I bought. I loved it from the first listen and still think it’s one of the highlights of their long, productive, and still ongoing career. So when I heard that the album would be profiled in one of the 33 1/3 books, I was really looking forward to reading it. Then I hit Matthew Stearns’s wall of prose. Example:

If the act of listening to music requires some degree of participatory commitment from the listener, and if that commitment itself takes place as a kind of merging and identifying with the action and drama of the record, then Daydream Nation asks for one hell of a commitment. Based on the sheer scope of  its attack, Daydream Nation poses a direct, imminent threat to the safety and well being of its listeners. At the very least, it threatens the security and structural viability of its listener’s ears. This record eats ears — chews them up with its gnarled sonic teeth and swallows them whole.

In this sense, it’s perfectly appropriate, and not shameful at all, to be slightly frightened by Daydream Nation. By reputation and in size, it stands as a kind of outsized rock ‘n’ roll behemoth — an overwhelming monstrosity (in the sense that monsters typically tend to be born of extremes, rife with power, difficult to contain, and mythic in proportion — Daydream Nation certainly meets all of these qualifications) capable of crushing the will of the most resilient, well-intentioned listener if the necessary preparations haven’t been made.

Um, no. Never mind that swallowing something whole generally involves no chewing. This is unrestrained and undeniably enthusiastic, a rush of words written with passion, and it was probably a blast to write, but it doesn’t make for good reading.

The book does have a lot of information; Stearns had some access to band members, and SY’s Lee Ranaldo wrote an introduction. But that prose style just never lets up. I’ve read a dozen books in this series but this one was the only one I had to struggle to finish.

33 1/3: Rum, Sodomy & the Lash (2008) May 7, 2009

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Rum, Sodomy & the Lash

Jeffrey T. Roesgen: Rum, Sodomy & the Lash

The 33 1/3 series is a series of small paperback books, averaging around a hundred or so pages, that take a look at a particular album.

Jeffrey T. Roesgen’s Rum, Sodomy & The Lash is about the Pogues’ 1985 album of that name. Instead of just going into the history of the band and the making of the album, the way a lot of books in that series do, Roesgen uses the album’s cover art (The Raft of the Medusa, with the faces of band members superimposed over some of the people’s faces in the painting) to tell a version of the story of the post-Napoleonic sailing disaster of the Medusa, with the Pogues as characters aboard the ship, alternating with nonfiction sections on the album’s songs. A couple of other books in the series have been works of fiction that somehow involve the album in question, so it’s not an entirely unprecedented approach.

Given the historical focus of many of the album’s songs, it works surprisingly well. The naval-themed album title, the choice of artwork, the songs that range from the American West to the shores of Gallipoli to traditional Irish songs, the Pogues’ involvement in some Alex Cox movies, and the fact that the Pogues were anything but a purist Irish folk band all make an anachronistic naval adventure a good fit. What starts off as a bit of a romp grows steadily darker, as an inexperienced ship captain and his inexperienced navigator, holding their posts by virtue of supporting the monarchy but overseeing a crew and officers who were supporters of Napoleon, take their ship into dangerous waters off the coast of Africa. Whether there’s supposed to be much resonance between the story and the actual career of the Pogues at that time is questionable, but it works in tying different strands of the album into a whole.

A bit more nonfiction might have been helpful, but as the bibliography points out, there are several other books on the band. (Heck, I’ve got one myself, Anne Scanlon’s The Pogues: The Lost Decade, though it was written and published years before the end of the band.) Roesgen interrupts his fictional narrative every so often with a section a few pages long named after a particular song. There’s some information on the song and a few comments on other related matters, then back to the story.

Overall, while not necessarily the most informative book in the 33 1/3 series, it’s insightful and entertaining.