Saturday, March 29, 2008

Book Review: The Big Wheel by Bruce Thomas

“Why the [expletive deleted] do you want to re-read that [expletive deleted] book?” To be honest, it was a fair question. My brother’s basement library has enough books to rival a major league library. Choosing Bruce Thomas’ The Big Wheel was the equivalent of walking into a fine dining restaurant and asking for Hamburger Helper and I’ll take a Banana Pudding Pop for dessert, thank you.

I had decided to re-read several books related to life on the road in the world of music, including Sam Shepard’s Rolling Thunder Logbook, Larry Sloman’s On The Road With Bob Dylan, and, most precariously, Thomas’ The Big Wheel. Thomas, former bassist with Elvis Costello and the Attractions, is still an outcast in Planet Costello, and this book is allegedly a large part of the reason for this.

I first read this book when its second edition (a surefire and utterly distressing sign that there is indeed no justice in the publishing world) was published in 2003. To say I disliked it is being too mild; upon first reading, I couldn’t recall a less interesting, more pompous, and completely inane piece of writing (other than one of my own blogs). The insights into the touring life were the worst kind of pseudo-philosophical nonsense that a college kid might write after studying Sylvia Plath for a semester. Thomas was prone to massive fits of existential ponderings; the simple act of watching a lousy television show from his hotel room could plunge him (and the reader) into page after page of post-modern angst. He also came across as a snarky, sarcastic, bitter ex-musician (from a bassist, no less). Perhaps worst of all, he completely botched a reference to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

A second reading hasn’t really changed these opinions. However, there is actually a decent amount of comedy in this book, if the reader can look past its many flaws and accept it as, at best, a grossly exaggerated account of life in the Attractions. For example, Thomas tells a humorous story about how he assists a friend in transporting “wellies” all over the English countryside. Of course, nothing goes according to plan; the van filled with wellies (which I’m told by a British friend are either shoes, jimmy hats, or Filipino hookers) breaks down, Thomas “borrows” a tire from a nearby car, cops intervene, and the harebrained scheme takes several days and results in no profit.

The book also contains some funny stories about life in the Attractions, though, perhaps for fear of a lawsuit, Thomas never mentions the band members by name. Instead, they are reduced to names like The Singer, The Keyboard Player, and the Drummer. Although some of the tales are pure VH1 Behind the Music (musicians getting drunk and doing idiotic things in hotel rooms... imagine that), some of the dynamics of the Attractions’ interactions are revealed, if from a sometimes suspect point of view.

The other aspect that’s striking after a second read is how mild and non-offensive the characterization of Costello (er, The Singer) truly is. In fact, there are actually very few mentions of The Singer. These brief mentions portray The Singer as a hypochondriac, distant and removed from the rest of the band, and someone whom dogs always bark at. I suppose that Costello is actually a Terminator. That this book managed to get Costello, a man who’s lobbed plenty of grenades and putdowns in plenty of his songs, riled up, is somewhat surprising. The insults are few and far between, and are quite tame.

Even with these occasional touches of humor, The Big Wheel is a pretty brutal read, and seems far longer than it actually is. It certainly won’t go down as one of the best books about life in music. Thomas’ absurd philosophical musings and snarky disposition almost ensure that by themselves. But buried among these problems are some entertaining stories that might make the reader laugh. Just don’t expect an objective, fact-based account of life on the road with Elvis Costello and the Attractions.

Who Else Is Nervous? R.E.M.'s Upcoming Album

R.E.M.’s new album is coming out April 1. Entitled Accelerate, it follows hot on the heels of Around the Sun, which, um, stunk out loud.

I’m willing to bet many R.E.M. fans are nervous as hell. Maybe it’s because, to these ears, every R.E.M. album released since the underrated New Adventures In Hi Fi has been an unholy mixture of annoying blips, bleeps, and bloops that are oddly reminiscent of actor Michael Winslow (think Spaceballs). Maybe it’s because I have a lingering fear, perhaps shared by many R.E.M. fans but vocalized by few, that the band is simply irrelevant in the current music scene, or worse, incapable of delivering a quality album. Maybe it’s because I’m hesitant to pour more money into the iTunes beast for another underwhelming album from Stipe and Co.


But I simply cannot shake the feeling that many fans want Accelerate to be a great album for other reasons. For many music fans, R.E.M. was our first serious music addiction. Although I got into the game late – I was barely a teenager when I bought my first R.E.M. album, Out Of Time, in 1991 – I quickly devoured the back catalog and with much glee bought the concert tickets, t-shirts, and singles (“the b-side is a 1992 live performance of “Radio Free Europe”? They never play that! I gotta have it!”). I had much to learn.

Like many other R.E.M. junkies, my favorite concert memories are also tied to the band. The 1995 Monster tour stop in St. Louis was the first concert my brother and I attended. We blasted Automatic For The People from the car speakers as we drove (as much as you could blast that album, anyway). My friend showed up late due to his high school football game, still wearing his uniform, and only managed to hear the last few songs. His twin sister was even escorted out of the amphitheatre for, putting it in PG terms, inappropriate behavior during “Bang and Blame.” Even with this jail bait hiccup to deal with later, he was thrilled just to be there. To me, such devotion made total sense.I’ve been hooked on R.E.M. for the better part of my life. But like a trout plucked from the water by an enterprising fisherman, the problem is that the hook is now securely wedged into my lip. And it’s kinda painful.

The R.E.M. faithful among us who aren’t total jocksniffers haven’t had much to cheer for in more than a few years. It’s certainly been tough for R.E.M. fans. The occasional concert tour aside – as a live band R.E.M. still delivers the goods, even if Stipe does an excessive amount of posing and posturing – the band has been the equivalent of an 8-8 NFL team: some highs, some lows, and nothing much to get excited about.

Shows such as Family Guy and Saturday Night Live have taken potshots at the band (of course, if any show should refrain from making jokes about anything being irrelevant. it’s SNL). Sure, some aspects of R.E.M. are very easy to mock (Stipe’s tiny, bald, and looks like a low-rent stand-in for Mr. Clean), but I can’t help but think the jokes would have been far fewer if the band had released better albums in the last decade.I want Accelerate to be a great album. I want to again be reminded why R.E.M. essentially kick-started my addiction as a music fiend. I want to listen to a new R.E.M. album without feeling that I’m listening to a once-great band treading water at best and sinking fast at worst. And especially, I want the friends, acquaintances, and sworn enemies who come out of the woodwork to mock and humiliate me every time the band releases a new album to remain quiet for once.

I’m avoiding all pre-release reviews for Accelerate. I’m even avoiding the live shows where the new songs have been road tested. For all I know, advance reviews are gushing over the album like they did for Bruce Springsteen’s Magic or Neil Young’s Trans (wait, scratch that one). When April 1 arrives, I’ll join the legion of R.E.M. fans with crossed fingers as we listen to the new album and hope for the best...

I just hope we aren’t disappointed again.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Book Review: This Is Your Brain On Music - The Science of a Human Obsession by Daniel J. Levitin

A book that analyzes how our brains process, listen to, remember, and interpret music runs the risk of being the equivalent of explaining a joke. It’s not entirely helpful or illuminating to understand why someone considers a joke hilarious or abysmally lousy (the wife pig is upset because her husband and two children have turned their home into a total mess. In fact, it’s a sty. See, it’s not funny because it’s a lame joke because…). We instinctively either have a reaction to it; an analysis of why it’s funny or not misses the point.

Similarly, music listeners have a gut reaction to music; it moves us, depresses us, inspires us, makes us want to raise our arms in the air and wave them like we just don’t care, or in the case of Panic At The Disco, causes us to flee in terror, jump the barricades, and bunker down in anticipation of the apocalypse.

Despite these potential pitfalls, Daniel J. Levitin’s This Is Your Brain On Music: The Science of a Human Obsession is a fascinating study about what happens in the brain when we listen to music, and doesn’t turn the subject into a boring scientific exercise. Levitin, a neuroscientist and former session musician and producer, has crafted an excellent study that both scientists with tons of initials after their names and lay readers whose grasp of science starts and ends with CSI or Forensic Files will find informative. Perhaps best of all, Levitin’s book doesn’t ruin the enjoyment of listening to music.

Levitin primarily takes a thematic approach in examining how the brain functions when listening to music. Although the first chapter, which explains the basics of music like pitch, timbre, meter, and all the other things your elementary school music teacher taught you against your will, is somewhat dry and boring, the remaining chapters are enlightening. With topics including how the brain remembers and recalls music, why music can impact our moods, and why musical preferences can vary from person to person, Levitin explains the processes occurring in the brain without overwhelming the reader with overly-technical and academically-dry details. It’s actually more of a page-turner than some of the best-selling thrillers that find their way onto airplanes and beaches every summer.

Perhaps the most interesting chapter is the final one, which makes a case for the evolutionary origins of music, arguing against scientists who believe music was a happy accident or an unplanned byproduct of language development (you know, like Vin Diesel). Levitin shows how music may have played a role in human survival and evolution, including aiding in cognitive development, serving as a key factor in promoting early human interactions, and giving musical males an extra advantage in the grand reproductive race. This last part is pretty discouraging for us non-musicians; even in ancient times, any fugly dude with an instrument would apparently be more desirable than non-musicians to females.

Written for non-experts who might not know the difference between a hippocampus and a hippopotamus, This Is Your Brain On Music successfully manages to explain how we listen to music without reducing music to a series of neurons and brain waves. Levitin writes in an intelligent but not overbearing or condescending tone; his passion for music is apparent throughout the book. An excellent integration of science and music, Levitin’s book examines the brain’s role in listening to and processing music without downplaying any of the emotions we experience when listening to music.

Music Review: Okkervil River - The Stage Names

It’s difficult listening to an album for the first time after fans and critics alike have already picked it clean and are working on the bones. Setting aside the question of whether it’s even possible to listen to a new record without any preconceived ideas of either it or its creators, hearing a months-old album for the first time is a bit like catching a must-see movie after the fact. In many cases, it’s hard not to be disappointed, as overblown hype and positive reviews can lead to unrealistic expectations.

For several months Okkervil River’s The Stage Names remained on my Must Listen To Before I Spring Off This Mortal Coil list. I liked 2005’s Black Sheep Boy well enough, especially its ragged sound and subject matter, even if it sometimes bordered on the overly melodramatic. Yet for whatever reason, as the plaudits for The Stage Names poured in, my doubts about how good an album it really was continued to increase.

Perhaps the attendant hype and eventual letdown around recent albums like Magic and Neon Bible have made me too skeptical. Despite this, The Stage Names is one of those rare albums where listeners hearing it for the first time won’t walk away wondering what all the spastic fuss is about. Over nine songs, Will Sheff and company craft a remarkable album that reveals new layers with each subsequent listen.

Most of the album’s reviews have focused on its obvious themes of the relationship between musicians and fans, the role and meaning of popular music in everyday life, and life on the stage. Certainly these are littered throughout the album: references to “some midlevel band” and “the ghost of some rock and roll fan, floating up from the stands with her heart opened up” make these themes obvious and impossible to ignore.

But this is an easy and somewhat lazy analysis. Such reviews make the album sound like a modern-day Ziggy Stardust, or, at its worst, a humorless and bleak concept album like Pink Floyd’s soap opera drivel The Wall. What’s most striking after several listens are the album’s “smaller” themes and how they unfold: life’s disappointments and boredom, little and massive failures, and lost and wasted opportunities.

These come in a variety of shapes and sizes and are almost always skewed with a wry and dark sense of humor, whether it’s a messy breakup that references Paul Simon (“The 51st way to leave your lover, admittedly, doesn’t seem to be as gentle or as clean as all the others…”), an unspectacular 17th birthday (“not everyone’s keen on lighting candle 17. The party’s done. The cake’s all gone. The plates are clean.”), or simple, biting observations that offer only small consolations (“It was your heart hurting, but not for too long, kid”).

These themes are perhaps most clearly evident in “Savannah Smiles” and “John Allyn Smith Sails,” two musically disparate songs that bookend the album. “Savannah Smiles” is a bleak account of groupie and porno actress Shannon Wilsey, told from the point of view of a father simply trying to figure where and how things went wrong. Will Sheff’s vocal is sufficiently fragile to convey the father’s emotions: “Photos show no tears in her eyes. All those pretty years gone by I just cannot believe could do that to a child.” The dark humor found throughout the album surfaces again, this time with a nasty tone. Shannon’s father reads her diary but regrets what he’s read: “Talk about your big mistakes – hey Shan, nice going.”

“John Allyn Smith Sails” addresses the suicide of poet John Berryman and is the album’s standout track. Sheff sings in Berryman’s voice as a defeated man, a “fall-down drunk with his tongue torn out and his balls removed” whose best days and writings are long behind him. Sheff supposes that Berryman might have viewed his death as a welcome change, of course with a twisted sense of humor: “From a bridge on Washington Avenue, the year of 1972 broke my bones and skull, and it was memorable… Oh, but wise men know when it’s time to go, and so I should too.”

Those familiar with Berryman’s work will also notice that the lyrics also mirror some of the phrases found in the poet’s Dream Songs: “I’m stripped down to move on own, my friends” and “stupidly, I lingered on” as examples. With additional details about Berryman’s life scattered throughout the song – the Brass Rail bar, his university job in Minnesota – it’s a convincing take on how Berryman might have felt about himself.

The Stage Names isn’t exactly depressing – the anthemic and driving instrumentation in some of the songs, the wild horn arrangements, the band’s mostly upbeat playing, and enough musical and cultural references to satisfy any sick muso ensure that listeners won’t be violently sobbing at the album’s close – but it isn’t entirely uplifting either. Its characters exist in an uneasy space between hope and hopelessness, resignation and stubborn determination.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Music Review: Elvis Costello - This Year's Model Deluxe Edition

When I first read that Hip-O was going to reissue Elvis Costello’s debut album My Aim Is True, I was incredibly skeptical. The album had already been reissued approximately 219,000 times; another edition stank of pure, unhinged, uncontrollable record company (or musician) greed.

But when the Hip-O version turned out to actually be quite good – a few tunes that had never been released before, plus an early live concert, were included – I was pleasantly surprised. Even if this reissue wasn’t exactly the definitive version of the album (it didn’t by any means top the Rhino version), it had a reason to exist and wasn’t a fleecing of Costello’s fans.

Hip-O’s reissue campaign continues with its release of This Year’s Model. Costello’s second album and the first one featuring The Attractions, the album is rightly recognized as a stone classic, full of the anger, spite, and revenge that Costello personified in the late 1970s. Of course, this album has been reissued previously. The 2002 Rhino reissue was a welcome new take on the album. Jammed full of demos and other goodies, and featuring Costello’s humorous and honest liner notes, that edition appeared to be the final word on the album.

Hip-O’s release of the album won’t do much to change that opinion for most Costello fans. Whereas the MAIT edition had a few twists to make it a worthy purchase, there isn’t much in Hip-O’s edition to justify it as a purchase for Costello fans who already have the Rhino version.

Too much of this release is simply a rehash of the previous reissue. The vast majority of the bonus tracks on the first disc have already been released commercially, with most of them appearing on the superior Rhino editions of This Year’s Model or Armed Forces. This leaves the kick-ass 1978 Washington, D.C. show on the second disc as the only new offering for Costello fans. Although the show itself is fantastic and the sound is great – it’s also noticeable how manic and wild the band’s playing had become since the show featured on the MAIT reissue – it’s hard to justify another pricey purchase of the album for essentially nothing more than the live concert. Costello fans who already have the Rhino version won’t have much interest in this reissue, apart from the second disc.

The packaging itself follows the same formula as the Hip-O edition of MAIT, with printed lyrics and tons of photos that have either appeared in previous reissues or are minor variations of those photos. The packaging is sharp, to be sure; but at a time when creative packaging is one of the things that might influence someone to buy an actual hard-copy album instead of just grabbing it on iTunes, Hip-O’s final product is a little bland and uninspired. Just like the MAIT Hip-O version, Costello’s excellent liner notes that appeared on the Rhino edition are again excluded.

A two-disc set of live Elvis and the Attractions from 1978 might have been a better release and would certainly have satisfied Elvis’ army. With both the Rhino version still in print and a large number of great 1978 shows that circulate unofficially, another rehash of This Year’s Model without much of anything new comes across as pointless, or more cynically, as a typical record label money grab. One can only assume that Armed Forces is next on the reissue list; here’s hoping that reissue is an improvement over this one.

Satire: Amy Winehouse Hired as Selsun Blue Spokesperson

Chattem, Inc. announced today that it has hired talented and follicularly-challenged train wreck/musician Amy Winehouse as its spokesperson for its Selsun Blue line of shampoo products. The endorsement deal is set to begin when Hell freezes over; the company’s R&D division estimates that this phenomenon will occur next Tuesday. The terms of the deal were not disclosed, though Internet rumors are rampant that Winehouse will partly be paid in “dangerous and illicit materials.”

Chattem, Inc. officials admit that pegging the troubled chanteuse as its spokesperson marks a dramatic shift in the company’s advertising strategy. According to company liaison Phillip Enwasher, the company wants to take its Selsun Blue products in a bold new direction, and Winehouse fits that mold.

“For too many years we’ve had commercials featuring perfectly proportioned men and women wearing black turtlenecks and mild cases of dandruff,” Enwasher commented. “In the span of 30 seconds, the man’s dandruff would be cured. He’d stroll confidently into the office, and you just knew he was gonna nail his big presentation or the floor secretary. That type of advertising was safe, predictable, reliable, and incredibly profitable. That type of approach is now totally out of touch in the 21st century.”

Although some industry experts are skeptical of the agreement and feel that Winehouse’s mind-boggling bird’s nest hair cannot be tamed and will in turn tarnish both Selsun Blue’s reputation and revenues, Enwasher will not be dissuaded. “We plan to initially feature Amy in commercials for our Medicated, Moisturizing, and Daily Use lines. The commercials will take a chronological approach as we track Amy’s journey from coiffured disaster so Selsun Blue mega-babe. Every day for 34 weeks, and twice daily when it’s raining in Seattle, she’ll be pampered with hourly rinses, lathers, and repeats.

“Then, once we’ve nearly tamed the beast and it's breathing its last gasps, we’re gonna drop our new Ragged Scalp Blaster X product on her,” Enwasher stated. “Designed specifically for unpredictable, irrational, and near-epic-disaster singers, Amy’s hair will be cleaner than a post-colonic colon.”

Although the details of the contract have not yet been released, Enwasher did acknowledge that the company has also secured the rights to anything discovered in Winehouse’s hair. “Even if our attempts to sanitize that primordial monster fail miserably, I’m confident that humanity can advance greatly from what we unearth. Cures for various diseases, the lost colony of Roanoke, the answer to how the filling gets inside the Twinkie, several peach trees, and various extinct species of birds are likely residing somewhere in the deep regions of that hair. And most importantly, I personally have reason to believe that Joss Stone and her career have taken residence there.”

According to her publicist, Winehouse was busy “reading to orphaned street urchins, and most definitely not on a mad bender” and was therefore unavailable for comment.