Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

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Snow

December 23, 2007

I have no better way to open a sentimental holiday post than with a simple fact. The weather here, in the Chicago area, is ass backwards. Last night at around midnight it was over thirty two degrees outside, I am completely certain. Everything was melting. It was one of those times when my town became a dripping playground of water. But the past few days since I got out of school have been generally very warm, but not quite as warm as yesterday. Yesterday, there was a thick fog blanketing the entire county. Driving in that weather is difficult. And it seems like everyone who is going well over the speed limit in thick fog also just can’t manage to turn their headlights on. This isn’t a hard concept. If you put a little snow on the ground, people drive like idiots. When it melts, that doesn’t seem to help.

This morning it is about fifteen degrees outside. It is frigid, but only because of the wind chill. Because so much of the snow melted yesterday, there is nothing but a thin, wispy layer left that flutters all around town in huge whirlwinds in the bitter wind. Tomorrow, it is supposed to get a little warmer, probably up to around thirty degrees, and I’m hoping that it will snow so that the Christmas snow isn’t quite so pathetic. I like having white Christmases. They are almost always white, so I guess the chances of it not being nice and snowy are unlikely. But now isn’t the time to get sentimental about snow. In February, I come out of my apartment on mornings like this in shock, because it feels like a heat wave.

I should be savoring this day. It’s an important day, to me anyway. It’s the last day before Christmas Eve, which is when winter inevitably starts to suck horribly. I love the holiday season. From about Black Friday to today, the world turns into something magical. I love that month… That is where you see the Christmas spirit. Windows at department stores, snow flurries, Christmas decorations, the shopping rush, warm clothing, the ever looming feeling of anticipation leading up to the day that the rest of the year has been leading up to, and that generally magical Christmas spirit. A lot of people don’t notice it, because they are looking too hard. And when someone on the radio asks you, “can you feel that Christmas spirit, Chicago?”, you really just want to blow your brains out. But it’s there. It’s definitely there. It’s subtlety is magic, and from Black Friday to today is my favorite time of the year, hands down.

And then there is Christmas, and the eve before it. I hate those two days. I hate them with a passion. Christmas is the most over hyped, corporate, disappointing holiday of them all. On Christmas, all those hopes and warm feelings are slaughtered in place of materialistic bombast. I’ll admit, I have never been an even remotely religious person at all, so maybe I’m missing half of the angle, that is the day of the Lord. See how I capitalized that “L?” Yeah, I did that for posterity’s sake. I don’t really care about what happened on the twenty fifth of December thousands of years ago. In fact, thinking about that just makes me grumpy. And following Christmas, as if that wasn’t bad enough, is another four months of dead, chilling winter. It’s not that this part of winter is so bad. It just lasts too long in Chicago, and you have to make it enjoyable on it’s own terms. It is usually depressing and lonely. I think the extreme cold does something to your neurons, and it makes one more easily disturbed by mundane things than usual. On a cold, two degree February morning, burnt toast scares me just as much as the walk to school, or the school itself. Etc, etc, etc. In any case, Christmas is worth it to me if just for the month that precedes it.

What I’m most glad about is getting off of school for two weeks. When I was a Freshman or a Sophomore, I might have felt a little differently, and I would have perhaps felt sad that I would not get to see the people I normally see at school for two whole weeks. But by now, I’m just sick of school, the workload, the social issues, and I just need a couple weeks off, which is exactly what I am getting, so as far as I am concerned I have little to complain about besides the inescapable grasp of the calendar. It feels good to not have to worry about English essays, or Calculus tests, or social strain. I’m getting a lot of stuff done that I don’t normally have time for. I am finally re-reading The Lord Of The Rings. My father gave me his nice copy of it, that he no longer uses, because he listens to them on tape. He has read The Hobbit along with the entire Lord Of The Rings trilogy approximately twenty times, maybe a little more. He would always make obscure references to the books when I was a kid, and in an attempt to understand them, I tried to read The Lord Of The Rings when I couldn’t have been older than ten years old. Horrible, horrible idea. I know I got to about halfway through The Two Towers, but only to such a degree that my ADD stricken childish mind could have managed. My eyes read the words, but my mind did not process the meaning. I finally gave up when I picked the book up in the middle of some long speech that Gandalf was making, the context of which I was completely clueless to. I say I have read those books, but I really might as well not have. And I’m finally doing that now. The volume that I read from now is red, ornate, and contains all three books, maps of Middle Earth and the appendices. I’m finally appreciating this literature for what it is. It isn’t just the source of story for the films, which I really did enjoy a lot. The Lord Of The Rings is the apex of fantasy literature, and it is fantastically written, and I am having tons of fun reading it now.

I also finally have the time to watch a lot of movies. It is an appropriate time of year to watch movies at home like Fargo, The Thing, and A Christmas Story. I watched Sweeney Todd last night. Whoo, boy. Now that one was fun. It rivaled Pan’s Labyrinth in terms of degree of disturbance. Lot’s of blood spilled. I like that every once and a while, and it’s alright because it was a great movie, but it was just DRAINING. Interestingly enough, there are a ton of movies I want to see in theaters now. Juno, The Kite Runner, and No Country For Old Men, particularly. But I really have to watch my cash. I’m really low on it, and I’ve been spending like crazy lately, for gifts and for myself. Hopefully.

As far as Christmas music goes, there is always that bombardment of tunes and jingles in storefronts, and on the radio. But in terms of albums, my ears have been particularly fixated on three chilling pieces that accompany the cold very well. Substrata by Biosphere, Treasure by Cocteau Twins, and Vespertine by Bjork. Expect reviews for Substrata and Vespertine in good time. I’ve already done one for Treasure that is sufficient.

Everybody have a wonderful holiday.

-Alex

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Daydream Nation 33 1/3

August 9, 2007

I bought this book on a whim mostly because I have always felt that Daydream Nation possesses powers that seem to elude me. It’s not that I don’t realize it is a good record. Just listening to it, I can hear the quality of the music, and I can also hear the influence that it has had on music ever since it came out. No question, Sonic Youth’s fingerprints are on a lot of my favorite bands and their albums, silently and subtley. But at the same time, I just never quite enjoyed many of the sounds that the album has to offer, and parts of it I simply don’t understand the appeal of. So I bought this book. Other entries to the series, the Loveless book and, to some extent, the 69 Love Songs book, have served me well, so I figured if I were to buy a book for an album that I really feel like I need to understand, the payout would be fairly high.

To some extent, it was. I think the biggest issue I had with this book was how much it reads into individual songs and themes. What I didn’t like at first about the Loveless book was how it didn’t give individual songs enough attention. I kind of wanted to know what pedals they used for a song, or what was going through the musicians heads while writing the songs. But what I realize from reading this 33 1/3 book is that the song by song comprehensive review really means nothing. It tells me some reasons that one might like some of the songs, and it might also bring some of the albums details and secrets to the surface, but I really didn’t have to remind myself that I don’t really care how much Matthew Stearns likes Rain King and why, or why I should even concern myself with these opinions.

That is not to say that the book doesn’t have some value of education. Stearns is a very articulate writer who knows how to get information across in style. That’s the first step. It’s an easy book to read and it is also fun. But you learn a lot from it as well. Daydream Nation is a musical puzzle if I have ever seen one. The first step in understanding the album is that it is bound to disturb and detriment just as much as it elates. Stearns main point in the writing seems to be that Daydream Nation is all about contrast. This might just be true. But broad, vague interpretations aside, there are also many details that I missed out on through the countless times I have listened to the album that the book brought to the surface. I didn’t even notice all of the sexual dialog in Silver Rocket. I also didn’t know that Hey Joni is about Joni Mitchell, Eliminator Jr. is a throwback to a ZZ-Top song, or that Providence is essentially an answering machine tape of Mike Watt of the Minutemen played over a dying amp. Also, the author gives the reader a rather comprehensive view of the New York rock scene of the 80s, the history of Sonic Youth, and the musical psyche of it’s members through excerpts of recent interviews and long, detailed explanations.

But a lot of what this particular 33 1/3 is about is mindless praise. And it’s exactly the kind of passion I was wishing for in the first place. But if one spends one hundred fifty odd pages relentlessly praising an album, it must be good, right? Yeah, but on it’s own terms. No question, Daydream Nation is a great album that rearranged the face of rock and roll for years to come. But these people are not gods. Part of what makes the album so interesting is that, for all intents and purposes, the members of Sonic Youth are just regular people with an artsy flair. Every guitar effect does not need to be justified as having some kind of meaning.

And lyrical analysis… Oh god. The lyrics. Part of the mystique of Sonic Youth’s lyrics is that more often than not, no one knows what the hell they mean. One part of the book that I found completely ridiculous is the detailed analysis of the lyrics of Eric’s Trip. Okay Matthew, there is something here you really NEED to understand. Every line of words does not have to possess some deep meaning. Sometimes punk rockers just say what sounds good and rhymes. I feel like all of the songs have specific meanings, but these don’t carry in every line. I can personally imagine that when Lee Ranaldo was scrawling out the lyrics to the song, he probably just thought the lines “I was the door and you were the station” sounded cool. Or maybe I’m hallucinating and every line does really mean something very deep, but I wouldn’t bet on it. I think if these words do hold a very deep, sophisticated meaning, their previous mystique was stronger.

This year, Daydream Nation turns nineteen and the ideas that spawned it turn twenty. It’s a completely appropriate time to release the Deluxe Edition of the noise masterpiece. This edition is remastered and contains a wealth of bonus tracks to make the experience that much more enjoyable. If you haven’t heard Daydream Nation, you really should, because it honestly is a great album and there is no better time than the present to take advantage of the re-release as well as the bands tour in support of it, but you probably wouldn’t want to pick up this book to accompany the purchase. Although it is a very well written edition to the 33 1/3 family, I just put the book down upon finishing it feeling like not a whole lot was gained, and what was gained was almost regrettable. To be honest, you don’t need to buy this book to understand the album. If you want to understand Daydream Nation, simply buy the album, crank it up, listen two or three times, and maybe take a closer look at some lyrics sheets, no more no less.

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My Bloody Valentine's Loveless 33 1/3

February 15, 2007

For those of you who don’t know, the 33 1/3 series is a successful line of short books devoted to the making of certain popular and acclaimed albums. Considering almost nothing significant has come out of the My Bloody Valentine front in the past ten years or so and close to no news on Kevin Shields has surfaced in months (save an interview in Magnet earlier in the year), this is news, and I picked it up without exactly knowing what the series had to offer. I will say that for fans, this is a must have. What the book does is outline what went on with the making of Loveless, a classic album that broke a ton of ground and ended up being a staple of popular music. If you haven’t heard it, you really need to. Like it or hate it, I really do believe it is essential listening. The book is nice, but to be honest it wasn’t exactly what I was expecting. I guess I was expecting a full length book when in fact the 33 1/3 series is comprised of fairly small coffee-table books a little over one hundred small pages in length. I was also expecting the book to be filled with stuff that mostly audiophiles would be interested in, like production techniques and effects and stuff. I was also surprised in that area, as the book ended up being less technical stuff and more technique, ideas, and principles involved with the record. That may have not been the goldmine that more avid and knowledgeable fans were expecting, but I’m honestly not an audiophile so I do feel like my time wasn’t wasted. Where would I be able to learn more about sound quality and technique and such? I have no idea.

It was Valentine’s Day a few days ago and I actually woke up to this present on my kitchen table. My mother got it for me as a present (AAAAWWWWWW), and it was Valentine’s Day after all, so I decided to read it when I got back from school and then give Loveless another listen for it’s special day. After reading the book, the sound seemed to make more sense, which may be good or very, very bad. Part of what makes Loveless so enjoyable is how big of a mystery it is, not so much in production but in it’s subtleties and wonderful details. Every time you listen to that record, be it in a new place or not, you learn something new about it, even moreso if you really crank the volume. But it is kind of better to not think about it so much, so it’s one thing to not be educated enough about it and something else to go “hey, that’s that certain effect.” Luckily, the book doesn’t suck the life out of the album. It does reveal some certain effects, a comfortable amount. It does clear up a lot of the myth around the album and seperates truth from fiction once and for all. The biggest fiction that has surrounded the album for fifteen years is that Loveless bankrupt Creation and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to make. The truth is that Creation was already broke and strung out on drugs by the time Loveless got started. Loveless may have cost a lot of money, but really it wasn’t as much as people usually think, and a lot of the problems arose from Creation sending them to different studios at a really fast pace so that it just took a lot of time to get settled and get things done comfortably.

Another myth is that any given track on Loveless has tons of guitars, and this just isn’t true. Most songs on Loveless only have two guitars on them. What makes them sound so huge and wonderful is the technique employed by Shields and the awesome use of the tremelo arm, which by no means is easy to use. Only Shields and Butcher could really get the hang of it. And it’s true, Shields was a perfectionist in the sound quality department, but honestly, the album came out close to perfect and no doubt extremely close to what Shields wanted, so it’s all good. The book elaborates on the studio experience pretty vaguely, actually, because it is extremely hard to judge where the recordings took place because they were bouncing around too much. But all the difficulties are made clear, and all the people credited to production get a little bit of light shed on them, which is nice. And all of it is reliable too, as the writer actually got in contact with three out of four members of the band. There are a few strange little mistakes though. There seems to be some confusion on Dave Conway’s name, as well as sequence involved with certain tracks and the EPs. Tiny little things. Chapters are divided up nicely, with each chapter being devoted to certain topics like vocals, guitar effects, sleep deprivation, and the state of the band members. A lot of background information is provided too, so it’s not just all Loveless but also other information from the preceeding and following eras that bring lots of stuff out of obscurity. He could have easily screwed that up by not giving adequate background information, but the scene is set pretty well here.

What I did have a problem with was some of the personal opinions of the author. It’s not like it’s their job to agree with me, but on some levels I felt like my own opinions were being encroached upon. Especially with the short outline of the album he gives early on. It’s not like I disagree with most of the stuff he says, but he does kind of dismiss “I Only Said” as a weaker track, which is totally not true. And he kind of injects his own life and experiences into the book a bit much, interjecting now and then with his own anecdotes. But that is probably good, as he is a veteran of the time who saw the band live on numerous times, making his vivid description of some certain live aspects all the more real. Another problem I had was the post script. The last part makes a fair bit of sense, but for the most part it’s an advertisement for Rafael Toral’s album Wave Field. Which I guess is alright and I won’t complain because it is a post script, after all, and not really part of the book. It just seemed a bit unnecessary. But very few stones are left unturned in this book and I really appreciate that, as there is just so much myth surrounding the record.

Almost all of that myth is cleared up here, and for those of you who think you know enough anyway, a lot of the book is scattered excerpts of a recent interview with Shields, so that and the cheap price should be enough to secure the purchase. This is probably the most definitive and well compiled source of reliable information that you can get on Loveless, and fans will love it. It’s a quick but informative read that reveals a lot in the way of production, musical theory, and personal affairs of the band. And yes, it does shed quite a bit more light on the futures of the band members, in a fairly positive way too. Loveless is an album that really needs this kind of book, and it’s already helping me to appreciate the album more because I do feel a lot more knowledgeable about one of my favorite albums. Which by the way really does sound completely different at full blast, which I learned not too long ago. This book is nice and fun to read, but don’t let it make you sit by your hi-fi studiously analyzing anything. That’s totally missing the point. It just gives you quite a bit more to dabble in, presents a tidal wave of great facts, and significantly eases the pain of the abscence of any follow-ups.