The 33 1/3 Odyssey: One Man’s Quest to Be A Completist in Something

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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.

I began with the two that interested me most -- Joe Pernice writing about The Smiths’ Meat is Murder, and Franklin Bruno waxing poetic on Elvis Costello and the Attractions’ Armed Forces.

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.

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8 Comments

  1. Posted February 12, 2008 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

    The one by Colin Meloy about The Replacement’s Let It Be was my favorite so far followed closely by the Magnetic Fields 69 Love Songs and In the Aeroplane over the Sea. The OK Computer one is awful, as is the Murmur one.

  2. Posted February 12, 2008 at 6:01 pm | Permalink

    Speaking of good writers, Spike, I’m always happy to read you here.

  3. elizabeth
    Posted February 12, 2008 at 6:05 pm | Permalink

    You should do both Let It Be books together, Beatles and Replacements.

    Some of the albums they picked are a little suspect but I guess you could argue all night if you wanna why Sign of the Times deserves a book when Prince broke so much ground with earlier albums. That’s what makes it fun.

  4. Posted February 12, 2008 at 9:25 pm | Permalink

    Great writeup. I love the idea and I’ll definitely be following this.
    Spoiler: Wolk’s book is amazing.

  5. Wagner
    Posted February 13, 2008 at 8:45 am | Permalink

    I love the Wolk book, too. Also, the novella Music From Big Pink is pretty great. Read fast, I would like updates.

  6. Posted February 13, 2008 at 11:27 am | Permalink

    The volume about The Pixies’ Doolittle is a pretty good exploration into the mind of Frank Blank.

  7. S Galliard
    Posted February 13, 2008 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

    I saw this on Idolator and it’s amazing to me that no one can agree which of the books are great and which ones suck. I’ve read quite a few of them and have enjoyed some more than others, but it seems a little pointless to recommend them, since different books rub different people different ways.

  8. Joe Harvard
    Posted April 11, 2008 at 8:49 pm | Permalink

    Recently a local group that does a cover nite [Twisted Covers] did the King of America LP,tho’ they allowed any Elvis. I had to defer to Oliver’s Army [and Girls Talk cuz I'm a sucker for a 4-chord garage tune with a pop hook]. Hard to imagine drying the juices on that wax, leather elbow pads or not. Nice writing. And you hit it dead on with Joe Pernice, after I read his book the prospect of my own upcoming volume loomed decidedly less brightly. Bastard. He’s working on a new book now. Which will be better I’m sure than MY sophomore effort. grrr. Great blog.

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