Thursday, April 19, 2007

33 1/3 series

I have been reading pieces from the 33 1/3 series over the past couple weeks. It appears that the aim of this series is to devote each book to a single album. The authors range from scholars to musicians, such as Colin Meloy of the Decemberists. There is a decent blog for this series that can be searched for comments and reviews on specific books from the series. I had heard from numerous sources that the series was very hit and miss, but having liked the two that I have read so far, I can't say really. I was in Harvard Square a couple weeks ago and ventured into the Harvard Bookstore to check out which books from the series they had and ended up talking to a fellow there who has reportedly read 42 books so far. I asked him what he recommended and if he had also found the series to be inconsistent, to which he replied that it depended on what I was looking for from the books. Fair enough. These books are only about 150 pages or so each, so I think if you don't expect a major piece of heavily researched work here, you won't be too disappointed. Some of the books are mostly anecdotal, others more researched with interviews, and others still more referential, such as LD Beghtol's field guide to the Magnetic Fields' 69 Love Songs. So far I have read Ric Menck's book on The Byrds' The Notorious Byrd Brothers and the series' oddball novella by John Niven inspired by The Band's Music from Big Pink.

The piece on The Notorious Byrd Brother was the first of the series that I read and I found it to be a perfect blend of the authors anecdotes, history of the band, history of the making of the album, and a song by song critique of the album. I stayed up late one night finishing the book with my headphones on, reading Menck's commentary on each song and trying to identify aspects of the songs he was pointing out. I had previously thought that the Byrds' Fifth Dimension was their best album, but after really sitting and focusing on listening to the lyrics and the instrumentation more than I had before, I definitely see why this album is so significant. The studio effects produced for this album by Gary Usher are tremendous and, at the time, innovative. I am embarrassed to admit that I had not even noticed that the songs blend seamlessly into one another on this album until I read this book. One last thing, Ric Menck includes commentary on bonus songs that can be found on the most recent CD release of this album. This commentary includes a note about an intense 7 minute recording at the end of the album where you can listen to the band, especially Clarke and Crosby, get into one of the arguments that had been brewing for some time, which eventually led to Crosby leaving the Byrds. I am including this track with this entry, though you will have to skip to about the midway point (~6:41) to hear the Byrds' argument.

In contrast, the next book I read was John Niven's novella, which is the first of its kind in the 33 1/3 series so far. There are plenty of reviews of this story, so I am not going to say much here. (There is talk about making Niven's story into a film. ) I will admit that I would have preferred to read about Music From Big Pink in the same manner that I read about The Notorious Byrd Brothers . That not being the case though, the novella was still informative and, though fabricated, left me feeling more of an intimate connection with the Band through their fictitious drug-dealer than I imagine I would have received through a historically factual account of the Band during the making of their first album. Well, I guess that is a flimsy statement to make, though I nonetheless enjoyed reading John Niven's work. The story felt to me to be less concerned with learning about the Band via the narrator's connections and more about the relationship the narrator had with the music on the album. There are countless snippets of lyrics that continue to conjure memories for me, whether by their apt descriptions of relationships or events in my life or simply from having been the music in the back ground while driving down the road. Certain songs from Music From Big Pink remind me of spending time in New York state amidst a confusing relationship with an old friend who introduced me to the Band at her mother's house out in the country. Other tracks remind me of driving highway 81 along Virginia's Shenandoah mountains years ago alone in my white pickup truck on my way to my home in the North Carolina mountains. At it's heart, I take Niven's story to be about these sort of connections we make with albums.

So, if you're tired of waiting for my half-assed, inconsistent album reviews, I suggest you check out the 33 1/3 series. If you do, write a comment on this entry and let me know what you think of those you've read.

The Byrds - Universal Mind Decoder (Instrumental) [+ argument]

1 comment:

benjamin said...

"So, if you're tired of waiting for my half-assed, inconsistent album reviews. . ."

Yes I am tired of waiting for your half-assed, inconsistent album reviews, but I am not willing to sacrifice the sheer pleasure of perusing your rather amazing ability to craft your thoughts with the written word simply because I find it impossible to bear the burden of my impatience.

So get to it, young man; I haven't many high-points in my day and your absence will undoubtedly foster a vacuum of sorts, leading to all manner of foolish pursuits like network television and local indie-rock shows.

Help me, my most jeremiadic of confidants, you're my only hope.