Thursday, January 10, 2008

Book Review: 33 1/3 If You're Feeling Sinister by Scott Plagenhoef

Continuum’s 33 1/3 series is an interesting concept: take an author with a sometimes shaky level of qualifications and turn said author loose for about 100 pages to explore the influences, origins, inspirations, and critical and commercial responses of a classic album. At its best, this approach leads to a better understanding and appreciation of an album and its creators (Kim Cooper’s excellent take on Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea). At its worst, the end result is little more than a mind-numbing exercise in recycled minutia, wild speculations, or overblown lyrical analysis (Dai Griffiths’ dismal book on Radiohead’s OK Computer).

Scott Plagenhoef’s study of Belle and Sebastian’s 1996 album, If You’re Feeling Sinister, falls somewhere in between. Plagenhoef, associate editor-in-chief for much loved/hated online music website Pitchfork Media, does an excellent job in exploring general music themes and trends against the backdrop of the album. He expertly shows how listeners now learn about and discover indie music in the Internet and mp3 age, whether it’s even possible for a band to remain “mysterious,” and how a band’s image is often shaped by online media before a listener has an opportunity to form an independent opinion of an artist and its music.

However, the book is severely flawed in that there is little discussion about the album itself. The book is more a treatise as to how music dissemination and consumption have changed in recent years than a study of the actual album.

Plagenhoef persuasively shows how Belle and Sebastian might be one of the last groups to initially maintain an air of mystery about both themselves and their music. Whether it was deliberate or purely accidental, the band’s limited pressing of debut album Tigermilk, eventual refusal to engage the music press, and sporadic, scattershot touring all contributed to a certain myth about the band. It was essentially left to curious indie music fans to discover the band through their own efforts and small circles of like-minded fans.

Plagenhoef argues that this will likely never happen again in indie music. Now a band’s biography and recorded output can all be accessed via a good Internet search engine. In addition, listeners can no longer hear artists without preconceived notions of what that band is supposed to represent, and in the worst cases, how listeners are expected to react to the music. Plagenhoef also discusses how the simple act of listening to an album as a single activity, instead of as part of background noise to another activity, even seems antiquated.

If Plagenhoef’s argument sounds a little reactionary, a close review of the examples he gives shows that it’s hard to disagree with him. If the author can be criticized for anything in this argument, it’s that he glosses over some of the benefits artists now experience from this changing landscape, including easier ways to get their music heard by a wider audience than even a decade ago.

However, this book is advertised as being “about” Sinister. Although Plagenhoef gives a nice history of both the band and of indie rock trends in the 1990s, and addresses the major themes that emerge in the lyrics of primary songwriter Stuart Murdoch, the album is not discussed in any depth until around page 90. This is a shame really; Plagenhoef does a nice job analyzing the album’s themes, especially those centered around childhood, generational gaps, and the role of religion and sex in shaping people, but it’s almost an afterthought in the book. Other areas that are not addressed in any real depth include the album’s possible cultural, literary, and musical inspirations, the album’s place in indie music history, and how the album influenced other artists.

As an analysis of shifting trends in how new music is discovered and how perception of a band is shaped Plagenhoef’s book is an insightful read. However, it’s a stretch to call it a study of Sinister. Belle and Sebastian fans looking for an in-depth analysis of the album might be underwhelmed after reading this book.

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