Friday, September 28, 2012

33 1/3 series

I am an addict...and my addiction is popular music. I adore it. Who doesn't? We all have our favorite songs, artists, genres. The right track at the right moment can hit us emotionally or physically, make us weep or dance. What I like almost as much as music are all of the details and stories that lead up to the making of some of my most cherished albums. That's where the 33 1/3 series comes in.

Started in 2003 by editor David Barker, 33 1/3 is a collection where each volume examines the allure of a particular album as well as the artist who recorded it. Named after the number of revolutions per minute on an LP record, the series spans rock, hip-hop, folk, metal, pop, country, dance, punk, electronica, and world. There is something here for everyone.

The titles are relatively short--often less than 200 pages, and every title is penned by a different writer. This does lead to a vast range in quality and approach for each book. Some read like meticulous postgraduate theses while others spout a haphazard spray of unconditional love. But I'm not here to recommend you those titles. This review is to suggest a few in the series that you might want to start with. These books will be broken up by the author's approach to his subject so as to offer some context.


Nirvana's In Utero by Gillian G. Gaar:
In 1991, Kurt Cobain had a number one record. That was a problem for him. Nirvana was not meant to make slick polished albums to be consumed by the masses, so Cobain tried to make the dirtiest, punkiest sounding album that he could. Calling in Steve Albini, a producer known for his intentionally anti-pop sound, the trio attempted to show the world that they had more than just rock radio chops, without imploding in the process. Gaar uses tons of quotes from Cobain and manages to show how hands-on he was, from the album cover to the video for Heart-Shaped Box. This is as breezy as the album is heavy. If you end up enjoying this book, you may want to check out Chuck Klosterman's Eating the Dinosaur, where the culture critic somehow manages to point out the similarities between Cobain and Branch Davidian leader David Koresh.

Beastie Boys' Paul's Boutique by Dan LeRoy:
This is a highly-enjoyable look at the hip-hop trio's attempt to break away from their beer-swilling, frat boy image with their second album. A Capitol Records executive takes a big chance on what everyone calls a novelty act as Mike D, MCA, and Ad-Rock leave their hometown (NYC) and label (Def Jam) behind for California. There they meet the Dust Brothers, producer virtuosos who have mastered the art of sampling other songs and audio for the best gems. Other hip-hop groups used sampling to great effect at the same time, primarily Public Enemy and De La Soul. The Beasties and their producers created a complex, fascinating record...which few bought due to the lack of beer-swilling, frat boy imagery. Only in hindsight is it considered a great record.

Brian Eno's Another Green World by Geeta Dayal:
Brian Eno is so prolific that three albums which he produced for other artists (David Bowie, Talking Heads, and U2) have their own books in the 33 1/3 series. Geeta Dayal chose to focus on his 1975 solo record. Eno brought in some of the heaviest hitters he could find to help him out, and so we have strings by John Cale, guitar by Robert Fripp, and percussion by Phil Collins. More interesting is Eno's decision-making strategies. He fought a several-day writer's block with the help of Oblique Strategies, a self-constructed card set made up of aphorisms like, "Abandon normal instruments!" and "Discover the recipes you are using and abandon them." What resulted was not so much a pop record but instead a grand feeling that washes over you.

Personal Reflections: 

The Replacements' Let It Be by Colin Meloy:
A few 33 1/3 books focus heavily on the writer's personal relationship with the record and tend to leave the intricate history of an album's making on the backburner. This has got to upset some die hard fans of those particular artists, but I was delighted to learn about about the Replacements' most stellar punk offering--Decemberists frontman Colin Meloy's teenage years in Montana. Meloy navigates his school's social scene and his burgeoning interest in musicianship with the help of Paul Westerberg's heart-stricken yowl.


Black Sabbath's Master of Reality by John Darnielle:
This book takes an entirely different direction: Fiction. Frontman for the The Mountain Goats, John Darnielle had worked in mental health facilities for youth, which explains the fact that he chose to talk about a heavy metal album through the journal rants of an angry metalhead teen. The band is mentioned throughout the book, but Darnielle is trying to convey the feel of Black Sabbath rather than focus on what type of microphone Ozzy Osbourne used. I must give you fair warning that Darnielle's protagonist is not well-versed in the art of using polite language, which the first pages of the book will make quite clear.

Magnetic Fields' 69 Love Songs by LD Beghtol:
Thirteen years ago, Stephin Merritt set out to write 69 love songs, and, by gum, he did it. This encyclopedia-like volume in the series was made to be read along with the triple disc magnum opus, dropping tidbits of information, explaining lyrical references, and basically trying to keep up with Merritt's short, genre- and gender-bending songs. Beghtol was also a vocalist on the album, so he manages to interview all of the key players that make up the Magnetic Fields, including accordionist Daniel Handler, known to children as Lemony Snicket.

Celine Dion's Let's Talk About Love by Carl Wilson:
Yes, even Celine Dion gets a 33 1/3 book. This examination is less about the album and more about the idea of good and bad taste. Dion's album, which features My Heart Will Go On, is one of the greatest-selling albums of all time (31 million worldwide), but Carl Wilson can not find a single person who will admit to owning it. To rock snobs, Dion is best known as the force that robbed singer-songwriter Elliott Smith of an Oscar for his equally powerful, not nearly as dramatic song "Miss Misery." It sounds like a battle of the titans: Future Vegas VH1 Diva vs. Authentic Tortured Accoustic Soul. This was not so. As we learn from Wilson's text, whenever someone snarkily brought up Dion, Elliott Smith humbly stated that she was incredibly nice to him and helped him with his anxiety of playing in front of millions on live television. There are people who feel like Dion has saved their lives with her voice, and Wilson meets a few of them. If something makes you feel good, who cares if it's considered in bad taste?

Even if none of these particular volumes appeal to you, there is a good chance that you will find something that does. From indie to mainstream, classic to contemporary, and with over 80 volumes, 33 1/3 has got you covered.

Cross posted at


Debra said...

I read about the Celine Dion book in Nick Hornby's new book about reading More Baths, Less Talking, and it is definitely on my TBR list.

Man of la Book said...

Very interesting post. I like to listen to music for music's sake (by the way, Telegraph Avenue Michael Chabon's new book is very "musical").

Personally I'm looking forward to the new Brad Tolinski book by Light & Shade: Conversations with Jimmy Page.