"Writing about music is like dancing about architecture." I've heard this quote attributed to everyone from Igor Stravinsky and Thelonius Monk, to Frank Zappa, Laurie Anderson, and Elvis Costello. While I can kind of agree with this statement philosophically, in practical terms, I love to read, and I love music. It only stands to follow that I might enjoy-and do in fact-reading about music. I've had several debates with some of the other Tape Op'ers, including Larry, about this. I take the side that good music writing can exist vs. the viewpoint that says music criticism, particularly reviews, is useless. In the future, I may just point to the 33 1/3 series of books as music writing done right. Each of the 30-plus small paperbacks in the series is between 100-200 pages and takes as its subject a classic album, hence the series title. From Pet Sounds to London Calling and Exile on Main Street to ABBA Gold, any music fan will want to read at least half of these books if not more. I've read six of the books so far and found most of them a very enjoyable read. Series Editor, David Barker, is to be commended for allowing his authors complete freedom in how they interpret their subjects. While this may reduce consistency, the series is more enjoyable to read overall, and it keeps the series from being too 'formula'. The downside is that some of the books read better than others.
The first book I read was OK Computer by Dai Griffiths, who takes a very academic, scholarly approach. Not surprisingly, he's the Head of the Department of Music at Oxford Brookes University. OK if you're in the mood for this type of writing. In contrast, The Beatles' Let it Be by Steve Matteo and Neil Young's Harvest by Sam Inglis take a much more straightforward, documentarian approach that's a bit easier to read with your morning cup of coffee. Both books paint a clear picture of the making of their respective records within the historical context of the time they were made. I found Led Zeppelin IV by Erik Davis to be the least successful book I've read in the series. Davis's focus was almost entirely on Jimmy Page's involvement and fascination with the occult. Some will find this fascinating, and Davis is a good, humorous writer, but I would have preferred to read more about the music and the making of the record. One of the most interesting books in the series is The Replacements' Let it Be by Colin Meloy of The Decemberists. Very little is actually written about the band or the album until page 98 of the 106-page book. Instead, Meloy writes an autobiographical account of growing up in Helena, MT, beginning with buying Let it Be on cassette tape and ending when The Decemberists play the 400 Bar in Minneapolis on their first tour. At first, I was a little turned off by Meloy's approach, wanting to read about the band. After all, this was why I bought the book, right? But, because Meloy's writing is so strong, I was completely immersed within a few pages, and I read the book in two sittings. In the end, I enjoyed and will remember this book more than any other in the series. Fans of 'zines like Cometbus will dig this one. And finally, J. Niimi's book on REM's Murmur, one of my all time favorite albums, gets it just about perfect. The book begins with a brief history of the band up to the point of recording Murmur. Next is a detailed account of the recording sessions for the album, with lots of interviews with Mitch Easter and Don Dixon. Next is a track-by-track analysis of the album. This is followed by Niimi's own experiences upon first hearing Murmur, providing the historical and cultural context of the time, which leads to a discussion of what is meant by the term "Southern Gothic." Finally, an examination of the lyrics and Michael Stipe's use of language concludes the book. I've read a few other books on the band and this album, but I still found this one to be insightful and a great read. Hopefully, I've conveyed a sense of the books in this series, and I highly recommend the books to anybody who enjoys reading about music and dancing about architecture.
($9.95 MSRP each; www.continuumbooks.com)