What's More Unbelievable?

Monday, January 5, 2009

Book Review: Swordfishtrombones

If you are a music obsessive like me, simply listening to an album over and over again isn't enough for you. You want to read interviews with the musicians, pore over the liner notes, study the artwork, read the thank yous and memorize the name of their music publishing company. For the complete music nerd, the 33 1/3 series of books is a pure joy. Each book is an in depth examination of some classic album or other. Many are vaunted records by the usual suspects (The Clash - London Calling, The Rolling Stones - Exile on Main Street, Nick Drake - Pink Moon) but they also have some oddball choices too (The Afghan Whigs - Gentlemen, Celine Dion - Let's Talk About Love).

I've read a few so far and they're all pretty interesting but the quality of the book tends to depend more on the stylistic tics of the author and it can be torturous to find yourself at the mercy of a writer who has no interest in exploring the things you want to know about a cherished favorite. I can't imagine any of the books topping Kim Cooper's endlessly fascinating story of how In the Aeroplane Over the Sea came to be. The exuberance and chaos of the album pour forth from every page but not every entry in the series is as magical as this one. Andy Miller nearly kills all enjoyment of The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society by getting waaaaay too in-depth about the recording process and Matthew Stearns tries a bit too hard to be hip and neo-beat with his writing on Sonic Youth's Daydream Nation. Meat is Murder was turned into a fictional tale by Joe Pernice but it somehow manages to be both an interesting short story and a impressionistic summation of the album's themes. John Darnielle just published a semi-fictional account of Black Sabbath's mammoth Master of Reality and I can't wait to get my hands on a copy.

I recently finished David Smay's well researched examination of Swordfishtrombones by Tom Waits. I was never a huge fan of Tom Waits' early albums recorded during his jazzhobohemian era and of the eight albums he recorded during that period, only Small Change still remains in my collection. With Swordfishtrombones, Tom Waits got a lot more interesting and his albums took a dramatic shift towards the wonderfully bizarre. The book touches on all aspects of his career and how his collaborations with Kathleen Brennan brought him to his creative apex and allowed him to fully explore his twisted creativity. He also sums up Tom Waits' gravitation towards the raw, dirty and bizarre with this fantastic line: "Tom Waits writes the kind of blues that has snoots in it." Indeed. I highly recommend this exploration of a modern classic to anyone even remotely interested and if you want me to send you my copy, let me know. I will happily trade with anyone as my goal is to eventually read every entry in this ever growing series and continue feeding my addiction.


Listmaker said...

i don't have any for you to borrow but i'd love to read this one!

jjosh said...

Nice! I love those books, have read a ton of 'em. Just yesterday I made a massive amazon order books...I got Bowie's "Low", REM "Murmur", "Dj Shadow "Entroducing", and GbV "Bee Thousand". Can't wait.

For what it's worth, I think the Led Zep 4 one is amazing -- sort of a treatise on the magic of recording music -- and my fave is the one on Paul's Boutique -- so much fun, informative, and deep in the process of making a classic album.

Gamera said...

The Bee Thousand one is good as is the biography of GBV written by a former member. There's a mindblowing part where he asks Robert Pollard about the inspiration for various songs and he has detailed stories about each one no matter how old or obscure. It's insane his memory considering his prolific output. I will put led zeppelin 4 and paul's boutique on my list.