The 33 1/3 Odyssey: Let Them Be, Dammit

33 1/3 is a series of pocket-sized books, each book focusing on a single album. This is the second installment of one reader’s quest to read all 53 (and counting) of these things, and to scribble some impressions of each. As always, please keep in mind that it’s just one opinion, often skewed and somewhat ill-informed. Accuracy is ensured as time permits. For the full introduction, check out last week’s column. On to the demi-tomes!

Part 3 of 53: Let It Be (The Replacements), by Colin Meloy (#16 in the series)

Given Meloy’s current standing as indie rock’s Dylan Thomas Lite, it seems to surprise folks that he chose to write about a Replacements album. For his band the Decemberists, Meloy crafts pop songs that embrace formality, ornamentation, and erudition to the point of absurdity (which is not a bad thing, for one simple reason: he’s great at it.) The Replacements were a crude and slapdash blur, and the best of Paul Westerberg’s songwriting had (and has) a plainspoken elegance to the lyrics, as if Westerberg scrawled onto a cocktail napkin what had started as a beer-soaked conversation and put a few chords to it later. It shouldn’t really be such a surprise, though; before Meloy reinvented himself as a master of Medieval Britpop, he dabbled in Americana with his alt-country band Tarkio and came from pretty much the same place as many of us did. We listened to R.E.M., the Replacements and Husker Du, we wore new wave badges to school, and we tried not to get the crap beaten out of us by thugs in varsity letter jackets.

There isn’t much in the book about the actual Replacements album; in fact, it’s almost incidental. As with Joe Pernice’s Meat is Murder in this same series, it’s more a backdrop to adolescence. You can pretty much count on one thing with memoirs, though — if not much out of the ordinary happened, your memoir is going to be bone-crunchingly dull. (Is it painful and life changing when your parents get divorced? Of course. Is it out of the ordinary, or even interesting to other people at this point? I’m gonna say no — or, not usually.) Meloy talks about growing up in Montana, going camping, and nervously ramping up to that first school dance. If you’re looking for the wild flights of verbal fancy that make the Decemberists stand out from the pack, you won’t find them here — something that Meloy lets you know straight up. “The music that I write strays on the side of the fantastic,” he writes in the introduction, “so I will say that it was not an inconsiderable challenge to tarry so long in the realm of the non-fictive”. The challenge may have been a bit much.

Part 4 of 53: Let It Be (The Beatles), by Steve Matteo (#12 in the series)

What’s a series of music books without a Beatles entry? It’s probably carved into a stone tablet somewhere that the Beatles must be included in all such projects. Given that, it’s pretty cool that the Beatles album chosen for the series is this one. Recorded between The White Album and Abbey Road (although not released until later), it’s a hodgepodge of throwaways and brilliance that the band itself didn’t want anything to do with once it was done. But even when half-baked (no pun intended), the Beatles were… well, you know… The Beatles.

Unlike with Meloy’s book, the author isn’t present at all in the narrative. Actually, I can’t remember a single instance in the book when he offered any subjective content at all. So… this one’s a history book. Want to know what bass Paul used for the bulk of the sessions? The ’63 Hofner, although the author confirms that a ’61 Hofner was also present at the studio, but by all accounts went untouched. The book is a blizzard of facts and figures. Luckily for the reader (although not for the participants at the time), it also details a tumultuous period in the history of the band.

The “Get Back” sessions, as these were initially called, included days of having rehearsals filmed in a freezing cold film studio for a documentary, and the band’s first ever move from the known confines of Abbey Road to their own custom built studio at Apple (complete with a space-age, 72-channel mixing board, which unfortunately didn’t work.) Oh yeah, and this is when George Harrison quit, prompting John Lennon’s now-famous shrug of a response, “if he doesn’t come back by Tuesday, we’ll just get Clapton.”

Who can fault Matteo for his “just the facts” approach, though? When it comes to the Beatles, it’s all been said and said again. There are literally thousands of books on the band, covering every album from every conceivable angle. Matteo must have known that anything he wrote will be scrutinized by myriad “Beatles scholars” (many of whom should, you know, get a life) for the slightest error. In fact, someone will probably find something wrong with this one paragraph in this one blog, and email me tomorrow about getting my factual ducks in a row.

It must be a gas to contribute to the 33 1/3 series. And being the author who gets to write about the Beatles must, strangely enough, be very much like drawing the short straw.

Random thought: 53 titles, and only 7 by women authors? What’s with that?

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  1. Hannah Levin
    Posted February 20, 2008 at 11:59 am | Permalink

    The lack of female authors in that series has always perplexed me, especially since I know so many of my female peers have submitted pitches for titles. I proposed Sleater-Kinney’s Dig Me Out last year and it was rejected.

  2. Anthony Lombardi
    Posted February 21, 2008 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

    The Meloy book is so poorly written it makes me cry. The very best one IMO is the Velvet Underground and Nico by Joe Harvard. Close seconds are Dusty in Memphis by Warren Zanes and Live at the Apollo by Douglas Wolk.

    I could care less about the gender of the author.

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