33 1/3: Books About Records

Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.

The line above has been attributed to several voices — Elvis Costello, Miles Davis, Frank Zappa, and Lester Bangs, among others — but if the roof is on fire, I say we dance. Continuum’s 33 1/3 Series, helmed by the insightful and inimitable David Barker, is good books all about good records. Not just “good” records, but records that changed the face of music in one way or another — records that set the roof aflame, and the two I just read — Paul’s Boutique by Dan LeRoy and Loveless by Mike McGonigal — are just that.

I know, what can possibly be said about Paul’s Boutique and Loveless that you haven’t already heard some drunken music geek say jumping up and down waving his or her (probably his) hands? I thought the same thing, but having been that drunken, hand-waving music geek more than once in the past, I was still interested.

Coming out of the wake of the Hip-hop parody that was License to Ill (Def Jam, 1986), The Beastie Boys surprised everyone with the sample-heavy psychedelia of Paul’s Boutique (Capitol, 1989). Upon its initial release, the record’s public response could be described as “doom” for The Beastie Boys’ career, but over the years it has proven itself one of the most important records of its time, and possibly the most creative sample-based record ever made.

The Beastie Boys were seemingly riding high after their many tours supporting License to Ill. On the contrary, they were ready for a break and ready to get paid, but their bosses at Def Jam were not about to offer them either of these. The suits neuvo there were stuck in a cashless lurch with their newly minted distribution deal with Columbia and anxious for a new record from the Beasties. This would not do. So, our heroes bounced to the Left Coast, found some new friends, some new collaborators, a lawyer, and a new label. Finally paid by a sweet advance from Capitol, the boys were set to blow off some steam and start work on what would become their undisputed masterpiece.

While the Beastie Boys were sorting out their post-License to Ill lives, a loose-knit group of DJs and producers was busy creating the soundtrack to their next era. Among these were John King and Simpson (The Dust Brothers), Matt Dike (DJ, promoter, Delicious Vinyl founder), and Mario Caldato Jr. (studio engineer). Paul’s Boutique would eventually include the music of many — real (?) and sampled.

Dan LeRoy’s book gets at how this all came together, and — it’s an interesting and illuminating read about a particularly mysterious time in the Beasties’ history. LeRoy’s insightful epilogue regarding nostalgia is also not to be missed.

Say what you will about The Beastie Boys, but Paul’s Boutique is the record that synced their placement in the alphabet and their placement among music legends: right between The Beach Boys (Pet Sounds) and The Beatles (Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band).

Not unlike Paul’s Boutique, My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless (Creation, 1990) is widely considered — and rightfully so — one of the most important and influential records of the 90s. Also like Paul’s Boutique, its making is shroud in rumor. Such myths (e.g., that it cost half a million dollars to record and bankrupt their label Creation only to be saved by Oasis, Kevin Shield’s notorious studio meticulousness, that there are thousands of guitar overdubs, etc.) are either clarified or dispelled herein.

Mike McGonigal does some digging for the roots of the signature My Bloody Valentine sound that was refined on Loveless and defined an era and countless imitators (also mentioning such worthy influences as Sigur Rós, Mogwai, M83, and Caribou, but spending a disproportionate number of pages on Rafael Toral), but how he went the whole book without mentioning Robert Hampson, I do not know. He does warn that writing about this record can make you “start believing it’s the most transcendent record ever,” and that “it’s too easy for this album to turn you into a pretentious twat. Be very careful!!!” Thankfully, he avoids hyperbole except where appropriate and taps into why this beautiful wall of guitar noise remains the touchstone that it is.

These two books pull back the curtain on their respective subjects, giving us a glimpse behind the mystery surrounding both. So, if you’ve been that drunken, hand-waving music geek or know someone who has, these two books (as well as the rest of Continuum’s 33 1/3 Series, including books on Reign in Blood by Slayer, Daydream Nation by Sonic Youth, …Endtroducing by DJ Shadow, Unknown Pleasures by Joy Division, Led Zepplin IV, Bee Thousand by Guided by Voices, among many others) will help explain the phenomenon.

Now if I could just convince David Barker to let me do one… (Right?)

I cannot resist adding the video for My Bloody Valentine’s “To Here Knows When” (runtime: 4:43) from which the cover art for Loveless was gleaned. It’s absolutely perfect.


Radio Silence: The Salad Days of American Hardcore

In the early eighties, American hardcore brought extra speed and confrontation to the DIY punk-rock game. Radio Silence: A Selected Visual History of American Hardcore Music (MTV Press) documents a big chunk of the beginnings of this genre and its culture. Authors Nathan Nedorostek and Anthony Pappalardo opened up their archives of letters, original artwork, records, tapes, fliers, t-shirts, zines, and photographs — all the the sacred ephemera of the movement. Continue reading “Radio Silence: The Salad Days of American Hardcore”

WALL-E: Here to Save You All

I’ve been holding off on writing about WALL-E as I felt it needed to marinate for a while. There are so many things to comment on, I scarcely know where to start. I’ve seen the movie twice now, and it could definitely stand several more viewings. The accolade is often used recklessly, but WALL-E is the very definition of an “instant classic.”

Though I don’t care for Disney otherwise (or particularly any other animation outfit), I’m a dedicated Pixar fan. After last year’s absolutely abortive and formulaic Ratatouille, WALL-E is a welcome return to form and one of their very best films to boot. One aspect of the genius that is WALL-E is the well-developed characters, and the fact that they’re sculpted in such relief with some of the sparsest dialog to hit the screen since 1981’s Quest for Fire. As painfully adorable and engaging as WALL-E himself is (some say he’s the direct descendant of Johnny 5 from 1986’s Short Circuit), even the minor characters (the feisty M-O being my favorite) have depth and appeal.

Thematically, WALL-E takes several modern memes and pushes them to extremes. WALL-E‘s is a world where our destruction of all the resources on Earth, our leaving it behind, and robots patrolling the planet after we’re gone are reality. The big-box retailer (Buy n Large) has grown so big as to replace the government and eventually moved us all off-world aboard its all-inclusive space community — the “Axiom” — where our every need is provided by machines (e.g., hoverchairs, ubiquitous screens, meals in cups eaten through straws, etc.).

The idea that our time on Earth is limited due to our own negligence is not new. The late George Carlin once quipped, “Humans are like a virus. Earth will shake us off like a bad cold and continue on its path.” Dave Allen calls WALL-E, “a parable for our eventual extinction,” and while eschatological themes are disturbingly rampant lately (Children of Men, I Am Legend, Cloverfield, Southland Tales, and M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening all toil similar thematic soil), I’d much rather watch a movie laced with global misanthropy than selective racism (as seen in Kung-Fu Panda, You Don’t Mess With the Zohan, and The Love Guru. I mean, really… WTF?).

Of course the idea that our replacements will be of our own creation isn’t new either, but neither of these themes are necessarily integral to the central plot or appeal of WALL-E. To me, breaking out of our technologically mediated, workaday trances is the most subtle but most pointed theme in WALL-E (admittedly, that’s my lens), while doing so by way of connecting with each other is its most direct. WALL-E is a lonely collector, and, spurred on by scenes from the 1969 film Hello Dolly, is searching for love. On his quest for companionship, WALL-E nudges everyone he meets out of their normal path. Like the Harlequin in Harlan Ellison‘s “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman” (who deliberately knocks a clockwork world out of its scheduled whack), WALL-E breaks everyone — human and robot — out of their routines and shows them a different way, his intentionality notwithstanding.

Pixar has always been infamous for their easter eggs, but they’ve outdone themselves this time. There are WALL-E appearances in most previous Pixar films, and artifacts from past films in WALL-E!

In the age of the long tail, it’s refreshing to see a movie that holds appeal for everyone and is still well-crafted in every aspect. Seriously, be wary of the person that doesn’t like WALL-E.

Sonic Youth: Goodbye 20th Century

No band has been more consistent while simultaneously being more experimental than Sonic Youth. Ever. When it comes to making great records while still pushing the limits of themselves and their listeners, Sonic Youth are the reigning ensemble. I doubt that anyone in the know — fan or foe — would contest that. In Goodbye 20th Century (Da Capo), their first authorized biography, David Browne wades through waves of feedback and gets behind the amps of the nearly three decades of noise from this veritable institution of American music. Continue reading “Sonic Youth: Goodbye 20th Century”

Tom Waits: By Demons Be Driven

Somewhere in a dark corner of rock and roll’s junkyard, there’s a carnival going on. An old white blues man is noisily trying to shake off his demons. His once-shiny suit is dusty from the melee, and the twisted metal of his soul is on display. As a crowd gathers in the night, the carnie growls in delight. That ol’ devil’s got ‘im in fevers and fits, howling his gospel to any and all who’ll listen. Continue reading “Tom Waits: By Demons Be Driven”