Starting here, I’ll be working my way through reviews of books from Continuum’s 33 1/3 series
. I’m not going to go through the series in chronological order, but I do hope to eventually work my way through the full series. In this, our first installment, we’ll read about a couple of novelists, a couple of critics, and a musician taking on some classic (and not so classic) albums.
#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 with Fear of Music
over time, 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 reference that makes 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.
#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.
#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.
#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 Sound
s. But dammit, Fusilli’s blending of album-lore and Beach Boys history with his personal enthusiasm for the album makes this volume damn near infectious. By 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.
#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.