Thursday, September 17, 2009

Let's Talk About Criticism (The Good Kind)

As stated previously, we recently received an enormous shipment of 33 1/3, the Continuum imprint that caters to the cut of listener who yearns to dig beyond the liner notes. Now, I have always been of the mind that music critics, like their filmic counterparts, occupy a completely superfluous role in society; nonetheless, I have been addicted to these books since their inception, thanks both to their almost invariably insightful commentary and to their brilliant design scheme, and I’m not ashamed to say that I felt downright giddy poring through the myriad titles that now grace our shelves. In the hopes of transmitting that excitement to others, I’ve made a list of some of my favorite entries in the series thus far. Hopefully they’ll still be here when you come around.


# 52 Let’s Talk About Love by Carl Wilson

Without a doubt, this is the best entry I’ve read, and one which I imagine will be hard to top. The beauty of it lies in its seeming absurdity: Who would write a serious critical analysis of CĂ©line Dion, the chest-pounding scourge of the hipster elite? It is under this guise that Carl Wilson delivers a devastating dissertation about the hollow and arbitrary nature of taste, and its function as a propagator of the stereotypes proliferated by the upper echelon of society. He reaches the ultimate conclusion that taste is wholly subjective and completely ungoverned by objective standards, which—whaddaya know!—has long been my opinion, too. I only hope that he follows this masterpiece with a rundown of Now That’s What I Call Music!


# 17 zeprunes2.jpg by Erik Davis

Serving as the crystallization of Jimmy Page’s obsession with the occult, Led Zeppelin’s unpronounceable fourth album has attained a well-deserved status as the most mysterious platter in the entire rock canon. Erik Davis, clearly up to the challenge, attacks said behemoth with a vigor worthy of its crushing heft and epic scope: The genesis of each legendary track is dissected in full detail, from the fireside epiphany of “Stairway To Heaven” to the actual stairway that gave birth to “When The Levee Breaks”, and the mystical runes and rampant symbolism which run through the album’s lyrics and artwork are scrutinized with a passion that borders on obsession. Davis does an excellent job in unraveling the secrets of one of the most popular albums ever made, a tract which—despite the disadvantages of time and ever-growing familiarity—continues to deny a full disclosure of its mystical nature.


#30 Paul’s Boutique by Dan Le Roy

This, this monumental smorgasbord of funk, soul, psychedelia, bluegrass, and classic rock, was the album that changed my direction, that made me a hopeless lifelong devotee of hip-hop, that transformed me from an art-rock-lovin’ antisocialite into what the editors of The Source refer to as a “head”. My mind was completely and irrevocably blown upon my first listen, Mike D and Adams Yauch and Horovitz dropping science from the beloved old boombox in the kitchen of our house, the windows open and a summer breeze painting the air around me, poetry in motion around my head, cultural touchstones whizzing by in a parade of flawless diction, the perfect timing making up for the imperfect grammar. Hearing familiar sound bites ripped free of their mooring and thrown into alien surroundings, my brain scrambled to keep up, and the result was a giddy euphoria unlike anything I’d experienced outside of local anaethesia.

Dan Le Roy apparently had much the same reaction, and this loving tribute to what remains one of my favorite hip-hop albums ever covers all the bases an adoring fan could desire: illuminating commentary by the practitioners involved, salacious recountals of artistic risks and career near-disasters, and a track-by-track breakdown that accomplishes the rare feat of initiating the newly converted and offering genuine food for thought to the long-faithful. A fresh perspective is guaranteed to even the most obsessive B-Boy fan, including the one writing this review.


#11 The Velvet Underground and Nico by Joe Harvard

The Velvet Underground is so thoroughly steeped in the lore of alternative culture that it’s hard to imagine the music world bereft of their towering influence. Their debut album remains, four decades after its release, the touchstone by which all other alt rock releases must pass mettle; alas, their achievement was so resoundingly original and the circumstances of the album’s creation so unique that most attempts at emulating their formula prove futile. One of the few people to have pulled it off successfully is Jonathan Richman, the ex-Modern Lover whose coming of age on the Lower East Side coincided with the VU’s rise to infamy. His anecdotal remembrances of Lou Reed and company make up the bulk of this text, accentuated by technical details laid out by co-producer Norman Dolph. The result is a humanizing snapshot of a time and place which have been romanticized to epic proportions.


#44 Trout Mask Replica by Kevin Courrier

Beefheart’s magnum opus deserves its status as the watershed album of antimusic; as a primer for the endurance required of voyagers into the realm of ugly sounds, it remains unparalleled. Composed under truly psychotic conditions by a hair-trigger Svengali and his band of merry pranksters, Trout Mask dispensed completely with the rigmarole of pop music, ignoring the zeitgeist of late ’60s psychedelia in favor of scorched-earth Delta blues and extraterrestrial skronk. The result was an artifact from another reality, a reality which Kevin Courrier goes to great lengths to bring into clarity. Interviews with Magic Band members who jumped ship to avoid being ground under the wheels of the uncompromising Don Van Vliet help to shed light on the genetics of this mutant creation, and a detailed postscript examines the way that Beefheart’s baby has sunk its phalanges into the underbelly of pop culture in the decades since it escaped from its cage. One hopes that the Good Captain is aware of the reverence that his legacy elicits today, in spite of a mainstream culture which glorifies conformity just as unabashedly as it did in 1969.


#24 Endtroducing… by Eliot Wilder

1996 was a transitional year for hip-hop, wavering between the high of the Fugees’ The Score and Outkast’s ATLiens and the low of Lil’ Kim’s Hard Core. In Josh Davis’s eyes, though, hip-hop had been perverted by an all-consuming quest to get paid and a deification of the MC to the detriment of the DJ. In short, ‘96 just plain sucked. Thus he took it upon himself to reeducate the masses, to summon the spirits of Bambaataa and Steinski and continue the lessons they had begun over a decade before. From his perch above Dan the Automator’s bedroom, he cobbled together the God moments he’d found hidden in the labyrinthine stacks beneath Records in his hometown of Davis, CA, and gave birth to a doctrine of vinyl so transcendent in its goal to unite all factions of the listening public that genre classifications were not only redundant but inapplicable.

Eliot Wilder’s evaluation of Shadow’s career is based on several lengthy interviews he conducted by phone with the DJ savior himself. Covering everything from his middle class upbringing in Davis to his first encounter with Mo’ Wax’s James Lavelle to the critical adoration that greeted Endtroducing… practically from the moment of its release, this comprehensive recollection does a good job of filling in the blanks posed by that most mysterious of trip-hop virtuosos (Geoff Barrow notwithstanding).


#29 In the Aeroplane Over the Sea by Kim Cooper

Where would collegiate music aficionados be without Jeff Mangum? Would the smothering aesthetic of irony that infiltrated every aspect of pop culture in the late ’90s still be in full effect had it not been for the reprieve of In the Aeroplane Over the Sea? Best not to ponder such things. Better simply to thank one’s higher power of choice for delivering such a colossally life-affirming forty minutes of grace upon our pointed little heads, for having shown us that world was in fact a beautiful place, no matter what evidence may exist to the contrary. The very definition of a word-of-mouth record, Aeroplane remains commercially insignificant, but its influence is immeasurable: practically every musician these days who eschews pretense in favor of naked emotion owes a debt to Mangum and his crew. Going straight to the source, Kim Cooper delves into the sleepy southern gothic roots of the Elephant 6 collective which birthed Neutral Milk Hotel and learns that the myth of Mangum isn’t too far removed from the truth. Yes, he really did compose his songs without a written record; yes, he really did drop out of the spotlight due to disinterest in being a rock star. But when faced with the fates of Messrs. Cobain and Smith, perhaps the latter wasn’t such a bad idea. Having been denied the resolution of a followup record, Aeroplane stands as the definitive testament of Mangum’s singular vision and voice, the heart-adorned sleeve of a dusty vintage jacket worn by a troubadour who felt everything so strongly that he had no choice but to lay himself bare in the hopes that he could redeem us all.


#34 In Utero by Gillian G. Gaar

Nirvana took a major gamble with their final album, on which Kurt Cobain decided that the audience he’d acquired by writing flawless, scabrous pop songs was ready for the true measure of abrasion which festered inside his head. He solicited the production acumen of Big Black alum Steve Albini, the absolute last choice of the suits at DGC, and proceeded to churn out the rawest music of his career, the sound he’d been searching for from the moment he first picked up a guitar. When it was decided that the resulting tapes were too forbidding for mass consumption, R.E.M. stalwart Scott Litt was brought in to salvage what little radio-friendliness could be had, and the final product was a compromise for everyone involved. Here, Gillian Gaar exposes the intralabel strife that almost aborted In Utero before it could hit the market, from the fights over artistic control and songwriting credit to the compromising position in which Cobain found himself after siring one of the most lucrative rock releases of the early ’90s. In spite of (or because of) the antagonism of which it was borne, In Utero may well be Nirvana’s greatest legacy, a punishing treatise on the true cost of success.


#31 Doolittle by Ben Sisario

Somewhere in the West Hills surrounding Portland, OR lives a balding, cherub-faced imp with the unassuming moniker of Charles Thompson. The utter innocuity of his homestead belies his former identity as a screaming firebrand named Black Francis, the main creative force of the Pixies, arguably the most celebrated indie band of the late ’80s. Ben Sisario pays a friendly visit to Mr. Thompson’s neighborhood, and the two men reminisce upon past glories while tootling around the surrounding burgs. When they go to a local music retailer to purchase a copy of Doolittle, the Pixies’ magnum opus, Thompson seems unsurprised when the clerk doesn’t recognize him as one of the authors of the very CD she’s holding; despite a successful solo career as the rechristened Frank Black, he has maintained a fairly low profile, both in the local community and in the pop world at large. Thompson’s candor regarding his turbulent relationship with Pixies bassist Kim Deal and the circumstances surrounding the band’s dissolution and eventual rebirth does well to sweep up the debris that his massive persona has left in its wake. Without him, there’s no telling whether the alternative movement of the ’90s would have gone underway, but Thompson is past letting it go to his head. For now, he seems content to just relax in the woods.

Prices range from $9.95 to $10.95.

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