There was a piece on the series in the Arts section of yesterday’s Chicago Tribune – an overview of the whole project, followed by summaries of ten of the books. Here’s the article:
Everybody has favorite records. To this degree, we’re all proud defenders of sonic delights no matter how dated, flawed or unpopular they seem to others. When discussion turns to such matters, too much information is never enough, particularly when outsider opinions vehemently concur — or disagree — with our own.
Which is why Continuum’s 33 1/3 book series is among the best music-themed literature going. Personal, obsessive and clever, the paperbacks celebrate older, sales-proven classics as well as equally influential albeit less commercially successful works.
Every 33 1/3 is devoted to a single album and written by a different author, whose approaches are as varied as the artists they explore.
Uniform consistency is maintained via layouts and logistics. All of the pocket size books feature elegant block patterns and color schemes that correspond to the cover art of the album; like vinyl LPs, the spines feature a chronological number.
The books are relatively short (100 to 170 pages) and inexpensive ($9.95-$10.95). And because the topics have yet to hit a sour note, they beg to be collected.
Continuum has released approximately 40 titles since 2003. Additional books are scheduled before the year’s end, including takes on Steely Dan’s “Aja” and Sonic Youth’s “Daydream Nation,” both due this spring. While not every volume in the series rates a five-star review, the majority are impossible to put down and inspire extensive listening.
10 Exemplary entries, each distinguished by individual bents and fresh ideas:
“Harvest,” by Sam Inglis (2003)
A study that’s as much about Neil Young’s 1972 LP as it is about the notion of whether records embraced by casual listeners are necessarily “classic” or representative of their makers. Journeying through Young’s past and outlining Nashville’s country traditions, Sam Inglis outlines the album’s genesis and formation while considering whether “Harvest” is as mainstream as it appears. The overarching themes of finesse, product and art are pertinent to a society fixated on TV shows such as “American Idol.”
“The Velvet Underground and Nico,” by Joe Harvard (2004)
“Today, the kind of lives deemed permissible for art to reflect upon seem more and more to resemble those that the Velvets explored in their songs,” writes Joe Harvard, assessing the milieus surrounding the Velvet Underground’s debut, virtually ignored upon release in 1967 and now considered a watershed statement. A Boston producer, Harvard brings a musician’s perspective to evaluating song structures, album sonics and band chemistry, while balanced views on Nico and Andy Warhol’s roles reinforce the record’s cultural impact.
“Live at the Apollo,” by Douglas Wolk (2004)
Divided into short vignettes, Douglas Wolk’s true-fiction account of the night that James Brown recorded his seminal concert album flows with the breathless pace of an episode of “24.” While Wolk wasn’t present at the show, his urgent language, meticulous character sketches and contextual devices — backgrounders, flashbacks and biographies — convey what likely went down in Harlem in late October 1962. Minor falsehoods and subtle discrepancies are uncovered via scrutiny of the set list and recording; for extra oomph, Cold War drama unfolds as a subplot. Riveting.
“Led Zeppelin IV,” by Erik Davis (2005)
Rather than recycle tales that have been told umpteen times, Erik Davis sheds fascinating light on one of rock’s superlative albums by probing the symbols, images, roots and legends that surround it. In addition to the band members, Aleister Crowley and J.R.R. Tolkien hover as primary figures. Ultimately, Davis lets readers form their own conclusions based on the evidence.
“Ramones,” by Nicholas Rombes (2005)
By inspecting the Ramones’ debut amid its mid-’70s landscape, English professor Nicholas Rombes examines how the New York quartet preserved an underground ethos in a movement whose values were fuzzy and diluted. Equally fascinating is a dissection of punk that encompasses its contradictions, associations, attitudes, iconography and performance. After establishing basic parameters, Rombes dives into the music and asserts that the band’s sounds are a defense against definitive interpretation — the very notion of punk.
“In the Aeroplane Over the Sea,” by Kim Cooper (2006)
Exhaustively researched and warmly narrated, Kim Cooper’s Cinderella story of the 1997 Neutral Milk Hotel album that has sold upward of 150,000 copies primarily through word of mouth and caused its primary creator to withdraw from the public-eye functions as an indie-rock doctrine. Tracing the evolution of the band’s main participants back to their childhoods and following their paths through the culmination of their final tour, she debunks myths and humanizes developments along the way.
“Doolittle,” by Ben Sisario (2006)
Ben Sisario tears into the Pixies’ “Doolittle” with an enviable combination of cunning prose, exacting detail and theoretical conviction. His colorful descriptions serve as analytical contexts for the narrative as well as accessible entry points into briefs about Surrealism, Dadaism, Christianity and apocalyptic paranoia – themes echoed by the record. Stemming from a one-on-one road trip with Pixies icon Frank Black, various interviews, song-by-song appraisals and article research, the watertight approach provides insight into just where Black’s mind was.
“Paul’s Boutique,” by Dan LeRoy (2006)
Drawing upon first hand interviews with Beastie Boys members and producers, Dan LeRoy mines the 1989 album that because of sample-clearance laws could not be legally released today. In-depth accounts of the trio’s controversial split with Def Jam Recordings, juvenile antics and their relationship with Capitol Records lead up to a summary of why the sophomore effort initially bombed.
“Bee Thousand,” by Marc Woodworth (2006)
Akin to Guided By Voices themselves, Marc Woodworth’s homage to the band’s 1994 breakthrough is fun, wordy, spirited and peculiar. Lengthy discussions with group leader Bob Pollard unscramble the patchwork songwriting and recording processes, and multifaceted interpretations of lyrics make for convincing notions about meanings. While Woodworth might not change detractors’ minds regarding the band’s value, his abstract thinking and quirky organization justify the lo-fi rockers’ enduring appeal and polarizing aesthetic.
“69 Love Songs,” by LD Beghtol (2006)
Assembled by one of the album’s collaborators, this field guide to Magnetic Fields’ 1999 triple-disc opus is the most unconventionally designed 33 1/3 Evoking the scholarly liner notes that accompany Harry Smith’s “Anthology of American Folk Music” box, LD Beghtol’s lexicons, pictures, timelines, discographies, question-and-answer sessions and puzzles exemplify “fanatical” and bestow Stephin Merritt’s epic a permanent place on the cult bookshelf.