33 1/3 Greatest Hits, Volume One (Continuum)

33The books' strengths come from authorship. Many of the writers are people who live the lives of musicians and aspire to be the subject of one of these books.

 

 

 

 

 

 

33 1/3 Greatest Hits, Volume One (Continuum International Publishing Group)
David Barker (Editor)

This odd, beautiful collection was spawned from an odd and beautiful idea. Come up with a list of 50 classic albums from the last four decades, e-mail it out to a diverse group of writers, musicians, industry wonks, and some people who defy description, and ask them to write a brief book about why they love it. David Barker did just that with his 33 1/3 series. He found the response from writers impressive and popular. The series of books, which can only be described as cute (measuring slightly bigger than a deck of cards and about half as thick), are a mixed bag that run the gamut from eye-opening looks at the essence of an album to pieces that leap the bounds of appreciation and are positively obsessive. This anthology brings together selections from the first 20 volumes of the series.

The books' strengths come from authorship. Many of the writers are people who live the lives of musicians and aspire to be the subject of one of these books. To them, a perfect album is a rarity that blossoms from many labors, both on the part of the musician and the listener. These are authors who can appreciate their subjects from both end so of the musical spectrum. Joe Harvard's piece on The Velvet Underground and Nico offers insight into one of the most important albums of the ’60s and does it deftly with input from all the major players, allowing the reader to understand the brilliance of the production and the dance that took place to give the album its unique sound. The VU piece can be termed an obsessive, knob-turning story in that is does concentrate on production techniques, as do several of the other stories. OKT stories can be mildly exciting, but the VU tale offers some psychology lessons and a deep understanding of how interpersonal relationships add up to good vinyl.

Several of the other stories are equally as good at giving the behind-the-scenes story of how an album came to be. We as musical consumers tend to have only a vague knowledge of how albums come together. That makes it all the more interesting to read about an album like Neil Young's Harvest that sounds so complete yet was built on several sessions over a year and a half in both the deep south, the United Kingdom, and California. Or to read about the amazing writing career of Ray Davies (the Kinks) and how many songs are out there that were either never recorded or literally thrown to the wind. The stories of songs from the Village Green Preservation Society add a great deal of depth to lyrics that we might just take for granted. Understanding the weight of lyrics tends to alter our appreciation of a song or an album. Learning that a band is singing literally about madness or death or sacrifice tends to put that song or album in a much larger light.

Knob-turning tales do make up a few of the pieces. Michaelangelo Matos' tome on Sign ‘O' the Times is fascinating for the first few pages then it becomes a little too groove-oriented—and by this I mean each and every physical groove on the vinyl. If you are a big fan of Prince, the story will hold you. Elsewhere, obsessive focus and style seem to damage a few of the stories. Warren Zanes' look at Dusty in Memphis feels exhaustive, even though it is probably not meant to be. He tends to labor over details and make his love for the record and the people who made the record seem much more complicated than it is. Formerly of the band Del Fuegos, Zanes is now a professor, which may have something to do with this thesis. Joe Pernice's fictional take on Meat Is Murder is well written and riveting, but as a fictional account falls outside of the scope of even this far-ranging book (though I am sure Morrissey is relieved to not be under his microscope).

On the whole, 33 1/3 Greatest Hits is an awesome romp. Think of it as a party filled with your smartest and most literate music friends. We all have at least one album we love, for whatever reason—it got you through a bad period of your life, reminds you of the best summer of your life, first time you made love—and when you hear it there comes a flood of feelings with each song. This anthology, these stories, capture that rush of emotions and brilliantly crystallizes the thoughts. Certainly worth a read. | Jim Dunn

About Jim Dunn 126 Articles
Jim Dunn grew up in NY in the 70s and 80s. Even though that time in music really shapes his appreciation it does not define it. Music, like his beloved history is a long intermingled path that grows, builds and steals from its past. He lives in Colorado with his lovely wife and a wild bunch of animals.

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