Oh, great Wikipedia, give us a concise summary because I can’t: “33⅓ is a series of books written about important and/or seminal music albums.” Important and/or seminal? Hmm. Maybe I should have given it a shot myself, as I didn’t know something could be seminal without being important (excluding my bootleg collection of Hello, Larry TV episodes from 1979, of course, and the first Star Trek convention.)
33 1/3 seemed like a great idea when it was launched — a series of pocket sized (literally) books, each focusing on one specific album, and each by a different author. Dusty in Memphis. Loveless. Harvest. Forever Changes. Meat is Murder. The Velvet Underground and Nico. Not only were they the perfect stocking stuffer or an affordable gift to yourself (perfectly sized for bus rides and bar stools), it’s just flat out cool that one series of books would cover both Dusty Springfield and My Bloody Valentine. Inclusiveness, ye are undervalued in the hipster age.
Then all hell broke loose. The first run was successful, and suddenly new volumes were coming out as soon as the publisher could find someone to write about some album, and then find some intern to spell-check it. The completist music geek market had been tapped. Who could own the first 12 and not buy the 13th? That would mean an incomplete set. I’ve always avoided completist tendencies, whether it was Julian Cope CD-singles on import or my favorite woolly Gap hat in all three colors (wheat, pumpkin and battleship, for all five of you wondering.) I once found someone’s cast-off Lemony Snicket book collection, for a buck apiece, in perfect condition at a Goodwill; they sit on the shelf in a place of prominence, missing number 5. Number 5 shall not, as a matter of principle, be purchased.)
But there are a lot of the 33 1/3 books I’d like to read. So it’s time to go undercover as the model consumer. I will read them all. Currently there are 53 volumes (god, these things are like rabbits) and approximately six hundred and fifty more planned for 2008. My impressions of each will be collected here, but please keep in mind that it’s just one opinion, and often a skewed and somewhat ill-informed one at that.
Part 1 of 53: MEAT IS MURDER, by Joe Pernice (#5 in the series)
First impression: no one is going to top this. Pernice has completely thrown aside the notion of dissecting the songs, and instead written a hundred page piece of fiction inspired by Meat is Murder, the album that the book is ostensibly about. And, truthfully, said piece of fiction is so good I don’t even feel worthy of telling you how good it is, much less pound the typer discussing it at length. This has become a book I’ve recommended to many, and when they protest that they don’t like (or have never heard of) the Smiths, the answer I give them encapsulates all that’s wonderful about this book: “You don’t have to.” Pernice is a gifted writer who’s long since found his voice, and his narrative is at times so poignant I teared up, and at times so hilarious I spit up my Moxie. The story unfolds with that illusion of effortlessness on the part of the author so vital to the reader feeling invited in. You know, it’s just you and Joe, talkin’. While Meat is Murder is a crucial album to the book’s main character — and the soundtrack to his adolescence – the story doesn’t depend on prior familiarity. As a reader, you know it’s important to this guy, and you sort of know why — and that’s plenty. Pernice doesn’t swagger with his vocabulary, which is damn welcome; it’s a tendency that pushes the reader away and introduces mistrust (more on this in a later post, on another volume, and with much more vitriol.) This book is magic.
Part 2 of 53: ARMED FORCES, by Franklin Bruno (#21 in the series)
Man, I was looking forward to this one. Not only do I love this album, but I’ve seen Franklin Bruno take the stage a few times and he was hilarious, with a wit so quick no one could keep up. I’m also a fan of his songwriting, and this seemed like a can’t miss. I didn’t even finish it. This book is dry as a bone, and the presentation — a scholarly look at all things Armed Forces, including the tour, Costello’s career up to that point, and the subtle differences between various fascist political groups — is so painfully arch that I kept picturing Bruno writing this bugger in a tweed coat with leather patches and puffing on a pipe. You know, getting a little freelance music criticism in before settling in to mark up a thesis or two. If you’re an Elvis fan to the point of obsession, this book is worth picking up, as no amount of information is too minute for obsessed Elvis fans. But my experience was more curious; I put the album on when I was halfway through the book, and the songs sounded curiously lifeless to me. Mayday! The book had actually poked a hole in the album, and all the urgency, the tension, the pure emotion — the good stuff — was leaking out. Franklin Bruno was quoting Susan Sontag essays, and the Attractions were fading farther and farther back into a bland, academic blur. “This album embodies a critique,” writes Bruno of Armed Forces, “but it does not present an argument. This is not a failing; it’s a record, not a position paper.” Sigh. Noted.
Next: The Replacements’ Let It Be (#16) by Colin Meloy, and James Brown Live at the Apollo (#13) by Douglas Wolk.