Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘book review’ Category

(Above: “(Just Like) Starting Over” announced John Lennon’s return to music in the fall of 1980. After his death, it occupied the No. 1 spot for five weeks.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Rock and roll is littered with artists who left too soon. None are mourned as deeply and fervently, though, as John Lennon. The former Beatle was gunned down outside his New York City home 30 years ago today.

Keith Elliot Greenberg’s new book, “December 8, 1980: The Day John Lennon Died” marks the occasion. Much of the information contained in this brief volume has been presented before.  Even casual fans will be familiar with many of the details in Greenberg’s truncated telling of Lennon’s biography. While the Beatle’s story is well-known, Greenberg makes it worth visiting again.

“December 8, 1980” reads like a true crime television special, which makes sense given the author’s background as a producer for “America’s Most Wanted,” “48 Hours” and “MSNBC Investigates.” The unfolding day is interrupted by the histories of both Lennon and his assassin, Mark David Chapman.

Greenberg not only places the reader in both men’s minds heading to the fateful moment, but paints a vivid picture of Lennon’s home in the Dakota building and the state of New York City as a whole. First-hand stories from Lennon’s neighbors, autograph hounds who haunted the Dakota’s entry, musicians, fans and police officers. The details these auxiliary players provide peel back the years and familiarity and make the story seem fresh.

Although they were only tangentially related to the saga, Greenberg recounts the activities of Lennon’s fellow Beatles on that day, and their reactions to his death. One can feel the throngs pressing against Ringo as he visits Yoko Ono at the Dakota, and feel the energy of Bruce Springsteen’s unofficial tribute concerts in Philadelphia.

“December 8, 1980” concludes well after the titular date, covering Champan’s trial, the Beatles anthology reunion project, and the attempt on George Harrison’s life in 1999.

Beatles fans truly interested in the events of Dec. 8 and its main participants are advised to seek out any of the available solid Lennon biographies – Philip Norman’s “John Lennon: The Life” has received rave reviews – and Jack Jones’ 1992 Chapman biography “Let Me Take You Down.” Although it is essentially a distillation of those texts, Beatle fans looking for a light trot through that devastating day should be satisfied with Greenberg’s work.

 

Keep reading:

George Harrison – “Ding Dong, Ding Dong”

George Kalinsky: Painting with Light (includes stories of Lennon’s concerts at Madison Square Garden and the Harrison’s Concert for Bangladesh)

McCartney in Career Resurgence

Review – “How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n’ Roll”

 

 

 

 

Read Full Post »

(Above: Jay-Z takes fans behind the scenes for the making of  the cover for his 2009 release “The Blueprint 3.”)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

There is no shortage of books on album artwork. Pick a decade, genre or label and you’ll likely have several volumes to choose among. Johnny Morgan and Ben Wardle make an impressive entry into this crowded field with their book “The Art of the LP: Classic Album Covers 1955-1995.”

While some of the album covers are inevitably familiar – Santana’s “Abraxas,” Nirvana’s “Nevermind”  – the grouping sets this volume apart. Albums are arranged in ten categories ranging from sex, drugs and rock and roll to ego, drugs, politics and death.

artofLPwebIt’s fascinating to watch the evolution of styles and boundaries. In the 1950s, for example, just showing a black man’s face with a red tint as on Sonny Rollins’ “A Night at the ‘Village Vanguard’ was enough to shock a racially uneasy country in the middle of the red scare. Barely over a decade later, “black power” was in full force on covers such as Miles Davis’ “On the Corner” and Funkadelic’s “One Nation Under a Groove.” More subtle comments on race and politics gave way to confrontational styles embraced in succession by reggae, punk and hip hop.

Especially interesting are the two-page spreads, like the one juxtaposing the use of the American flag on Sly and the Family Stone’s 1971 release “There’s A Riot Going On,” Bruce Springsteen’s 1984 “Born in the U.S.A.” and the Black Crowes’ 1993 album “Amorica.” Stone alters the flag’s stars to make it a statement against the Vietnam War, while the backdrop to Springsteen’s anti-Vietnam statement is seen as patriotic. The Black Crowes chose an image from Hustler of a woman in a flag patterned bikini. The authors note that the Crowes statement wouldn’t have been unusual in the free love era of the ‘60s, but needed the relaxed censorship of the ‘90s to gain mainstream circulation.

Arranging the albums so they comment and reflect on each other, not only reinforces the themes, but adds a deeper appreciation of the work. Students of art will undoubtedly relish this experience, but for the rest of us Morgan and Wardle have added a solid block of text for each work. This paragraph not only provides the context of the time and artists, but explains what the artist may have been trying to accomplish.

This text is especially fun on the disastrous covers marked with an exclamation point.  The authors clearly have a special place in their hearts for the Scorpions. No less than three of the ‘80s German metal outfit’s covers are denoted. Reaching a “Spinal Tap” moment, they muse “Would the Scorpions ever learn the difference between sexy and sexist? Of course not.”

Ending just before the peak of the CD era, Morgan and Wardle give their subjects the largest canvass possible. The oversized pages allow for half-size reproductions. Music fans used to viewing tiny CD booklets will be amazed at the details that spring from the page. Fans accustomed to vinyl sleeves won’t miss much. Gatefold covers or albums that answer the cover artwork on the back are also given full exhibition. The handsome hardbound book is housed in a red plastic slipcase.

“The Art of the LP” is a visual jukebox that will entertain and inspire music fans and artists alike. Unless your coffee table is already loaded with similar books, I suggest making room for this one.

Keep reading:

George Kalinsky: Painting with Light

Review: “Neil Young – Long May You Run: The Illustrated History”

Review: “The Oxford American: Book of Great Music Writing”

Read Full Post »

(Above: If you want to hang with Mos Def, Eminem and Black Thought, you’d be advised to do your homework first.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Two of the most common criticism of hip hop are, one, it’s not music and, two, anyone can do it. While the first complaint is purely subjective, it would be difficult to think anyone could agree with the second conclusion after reading “How To Rap.”

Drawing on interviews with more than 100 MCs, Paul Edwards has assembled a comprehensive primer for aspiring microphone magicians. Incredibly concise, Edwards and his subjects cover nearly every conceivable topic, including rhyme schemes, recording and performing, in 340 pages.

A diverse palette of interviewees matches the range of topics. Edwards culls insight from conscious rappers like Gift of Gab, underground MCs such as Aesop Rock and Mr. Lif and gangsta rappers like the Clipse. Legends Phife Dawg and Q-Tip from A Tribe Called Quest, Chuck D, Big Daddy Kane and Kool Moe Dee (who also provides the introduction), also lend insight. Local music fans will be delighted to read TechN9ne’s contributions.

At first glance, the text seems obvious. Much of the first section on content and styles should already be familiar to anyone with an interest deep enough in hip hop to pick up this book. Once the overview is out of the way, however, the book offers fascinating insight.

The flow diagram demonstrates how MCs line up their lyrics against the beats. The product is surprisingly similar to traditional notation and demonstrates how much forethought is put into delivery. This complexity is reinforced in the chapter explaining different styles of rhyming, rhyme schemes and placement. The pattern diagram ties these concepts together, allowing lyricists to illustrate how the syllables fall in their lyrics, pointing out repetitive patterns or other accidental traps.

Edwards stays out of the way, letting the artists break down each step in their own way. Not only does the reader learn this information firsthand, but receives several different perspectives on the process. Most of the time this format serves well, but sometimes Edwards’ narrative is repetitive. He frequently sets up a topic, only to have the first quote echo that statement. Edwards does a good job of editing the quotes, pruning the “you know what I mean” while maintaining each performer’s voice.

While a lot of the biggest names dropped frequently dropped among the pages – particularly Eminem and Dr. Dre – are absent, several of their collaborators, such as Lady of Rage, Devin the Dude and Royce da 5’9”, are able to provide insight in the missing legends’ creative process.

“How To Rap” lives up to its title, providing a meaty background on all facets of the vocal side of hip hop, while being slim enough to be stuck in a back pocket or jacket as the MC embarks upon the journey. Call hip hop what you like, but there’s no doubt it takes a talented person to do it well. Edwards’ book should arm the aspiring with the necessary tools for the scene.

Keep reading:

Chuck D looks forward in reverse

Review: Lupe Fiasco

Steddy P and DJ Mahf – “While You Were Sleeping”

Jazz, hip hop collide to celebrate landmark album

Read Full Post »

(Above: Author Greg Kot discusses his book “Ripped” in this 30-minute radio interview.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

When I was in graduate school I wrote my précis – an abridged thesis – on how the internet was changing the music industry. It was an exciting time. Napster was in full swing and Metallica’s lawsuit was not only breaking news, but new research ripe for my writing. (Incidentally, the record industry’s great hope at the time was to create a new type of CD that could not be copied or ripped to computer.) I was praised for my paper, but the research did not age well. Barely two years after graduation, its findings were horribly outdated.

Greg Kot fares much better in his recent book “Ripped” How the Wired Generation Revolutionized Music.” Published in 2009, he takes the long view on the digital evolution of the past decade. The book opens with an overview of how the major labels wound up on the wrong side of their consumers at the turn of the century. In the first three chapters, Kot covers the consolidations that homogenized commercial radio and placed extra emphasis on the major labels’ profit margins; the labels’ revolt against the payola system they built and established; and how labels quashed their artists’ efforts to embrace the Internet.

That’s a lot to cover in 50 pages, but Kot is wise not to belabor these points. Other books – notably Steve Knopper’s “Appetite for Self-Destruction,” which appeared a few months earlier – cover this ground in far more depth. Kot’s summary provides a nice launching pad for the real meat of his book, namely how the net has allowed artists and fans to connect in unexpected ways with unexpected results.

Today Prince is a punching bag for declaring the internet “completely over,” but his actions in the mid-‘90s laid the groundwork for the path Radiohead, Nine Inch Nails and other bands currently follow. Walking away from his contract with Warner Bros., Prince built a network with his fans where he would release music directly to them, at a pace he dictated. Without the modern digital infrastructure, distribution was often slow and frustrating. It is puzzling that yesterday’s visionary opted out just when technology became the most accommodating.

Kot also discusses how the internet helped Wilco and Death Cab For Cutie develop an online cult following and how that translated to mainstream success. Another chapter is devoted to the impact of Pitchfork and other online tastemakers. The book ends with the stories of Lily Allen, Nine Inch Nail’s Trent Reznor and Radiohead and how their business models have turned the industry on its head.

A music critic and reporter for the Chicago Tribune, Kot draws on his day job to incorporate first-hand quotes delivered in the heat of the moment. Putting the reader in the speaker’s mind in real time keeps the stories fresh and makes the linear exposition more exciting. Very little is revealed through hindsight; the reader gets everything as it occurs.

“Ripped” shares many traits with Thomas Freidman’s 2006 exploration of the online paradigm “The World is Flat.” Both books hold few revelations for readers who followed the events unfold in real time, but are also handy encapsulations of everything that has occurred. At the same time, they are immensely in explaining to the uninitiated how we got to where we are. Whether “Ripped” deserves a spot on the bookshelf or a visit to the library depends on the reader’s level of knowledge. Either way, it is worth reading.

Keep reading:

Review – “Record Store Days”

Radiohead Rock St. Louis

Review – “King of the Queen City”

Review: Wilco returns to the Crossroads (2009)

Read Full Post »

(Above: Neil Young, his wife Pegi and the late Ben Keith perform “Long May You Run.”)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Pity the Kindle reader or Web surfer. The computer screen is still years away from capturing the depth and richness in the pages of “Long May You Rung,” Daniel Durchholz and Gary Graff’s new illustrated history of Neil Young.

Much of the book’s information will be familiar to longtime fans. What makes “Long May You Run” a treasure, however, is its presentation. Read about Young’s high school days at Kelvin Technical School in Winnipeg, and a photo of the school and two yearbook photos are right there alongside the text. Concert photos, tour programs and magazine covers all accompany entries on the myriad of Young’s tours. These and other similar visual clues that populate the book help put the events in context.

Also handy are the sidebars that detail Young’s sidemen, producers and female collaborators, his film career, favorite guitar, Motown stint, the Bridge School and nearly everything else that wouldn’t fit comfortably in the chronological narrative. The text is also punctuated with dozens of quotes from usual suspects Crosby, Stills and Nash and Eddie Vedder to Ben Folds and Toby Keith.

Authors Durchholz and Graff are clearly in their element. The St. Louis-based Durchholz boasts music bylines from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Washington Post and Rolling Stone. Graff has written for Billboard, the Cleveland Plain Dealer and New York Times and is the editor of “The Ties that Bind: Bruce Springsteen: A to E to Z” and the MusicHound Essential Album guides.

Their story opens with a photo of a two-year-old Young nestled by a full-page shot of his first band, the Squires. It closes with essays on his Linc/Volt hybrid car and the first volume of the Neil Young Archives. In between we see Young grow his hair long, cut it short, grow a beard, and dabble with folk, classic rock, electronica, country and grunge. Never comfortable with one look or style of music, the only constant in the narrative arc is Young himself.

Four appendices chronicle Young’s discography, providing the recording details, cover art and track listing for all of his albums, compilations and box sets. Further resources include the catalog number and a- and b-sides for all of his singles, his guest appearances on others’ albums and the tribute albums released in Young’s honor.

“Long May You Run” stops short of being a Young reference guide, but that was never the goal. It is a wonderful coffee table companion that is puts a trove of information, visual and otherwise at the reader’s fingertips. While there’s nothing in “Long May You Run” that can’t be found on a comprehensive Web site, it is a lot more fun to flip through and soak up.

Keep reading:

Review: “I Am Ozzy”

Review: “Big Man” by Clarence Clemons

Review – “Record Store Days”

Read Full Post »

(Above: The Replacements always went out of their way to defy convention. While other acts were turning music videos into high-budget mini-movies, the ‘Mats responded by giving MTV a nearly static, continuous shot of a speaker for their “Bastards of Young.” It works.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Sometimes at a concert, if you’re lucky, the room will fade away and the music will ring out twice as loud. Your spirit attaches to the notes as your soul hovers, if only for a moment, one with the sound.

These are the moments music fans live for. They can occur in arenas and outdoor sheds, but they’re most likely to appear in small, sweaty spaces where strangers are forced to jostle and celebrate in uncomfortably close proximity.

“All Over But the Shouting,” an oral history of the Replacements by Jim Walsh, is a book of such moments. By forgoing the traditional narrative voice, Walsh lets the fans tell the story of their favorite band. Through their accounts, you can feel the group’s egotistical hesitancy at early gigs at the Longhorn bar and 7th Street Entry in Minneapolis. The quartet didn’t quite have the magic yet, but they could feel the potential, and hoped the elements would coalesce in time to produce.

The first-person accounts take readers behind the scenes, to conversations with junior high and high school classmates, and men and women who caught each other’s eyes for the first time, like ‘Mats lead singer Paul Westerberg and his future wife, Laurie Lindeen. The text crackles with the energy of early enthusiasts like Emily Boigenzahn. She appears early in the book as a major ‘Mat’s fan, only to have the band pull the rug out from under her when they hire her father, Slim Dunlap, to replace founding guitarist Bob Stinson. After hearing her champion the band so frequently, her heartache is especially resonant at learning her dad is now in her favorite band.

Walsh admits his fanboy bias in the preface, but let’s detractors and critics weigh in. Fans, especially long-time devotees, are never shy about pinpointing the precise moment the band lost the plot in their eyes. Walsh is especially deft handling the firing of Stinson and original manager Pete Jesperson, weaving historic quotes and news stories with contemporary interviews. Walsh is also frank in his treatment of the ‘Mats final days, when Westerberg and bass player Tommy Stinson were the only founding members left in the lineup. Walsh lets lame-duck drummer Steve Foley gush about the gig, but doesn’t sugarcoat the end of the reign.

The only time Walsh’s approach lets him down is on the creative side. We hear plenty of stories about where people were the day an album came out or when a song was released to radio, but very little on Westerberg’s songwriting process. This deficiency is especially glaring in the pages dealing with the band’s transition from their second album, “Hootenany,” to the more realized “Let It Be.” Westerberg’s writing matured significantly during that time, but we have no glimpses into what may have occurred to spur this growth.

The book runs past the end of the band, letting fans weigh in on Tommy Stinson’s current gig with Guns ‘N’ Roses, and giving Westerberg (through secondary sources) and Dunlap speculate on the chances of a ‘Mats reunion (not good). Walsh is at his finest during the 50 poignant pages covering Bob Stinson’s final days. Friends, random people Stinson befriended at bars, his last girlfriend, and even Stinson’s mom paint an unvarnished picture of Stinson’s post-Replacements life, his generous spirit and addictions. Walsh’s longtime relationship with the band shines as he places these remembrances in context alongside news stories he wrote at the time, other local coverage and the eulogy Walsh delivered at Stinson’s funeral.

As with most stories, a hint of melancholy runs throughout the book, but it is never overshadowed by the glorious free spirit of the music.

“All Over But the Shouting” assumes the reader already has a working level of knowledge about the band, and therefore may not be the best read for newcomers. Beginner’s just discovering the band through the song “Alex Chilton” after its namesake’s passing are advised to put in some time with the ‘Mats catalog before wading in. For longtime fans, “All Over But the Shouting” is nearly as enjoyable as hearing those classic ‘Mats recordings again for the first time.

Keep reading:

Review: “The Oxford American: Book of Great Music Writing”

Review – “Record Store Days”

(Below: A more traditional video from the band’s final days, “Achin’ To Be.”)

Read Full Post »

(Above: Satchmo and his septet rip through the “Tiger Rag.”)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

The beauty of Louis Armstrong’s music was that it could be enjoyed and appreciated by everyone from children to adults and seasoned jazz fans to hardened critics.

Pity then that “Pops,” the new Armstrong biography by Wall Street Journal critic and former Kansas City resident Terry Teachout, isn’t as accessible.

Teachout is an exhaustive researcher who leaves few stones unturned. His biography draws not only from the two autobiographies published during Armstrong’s life, but dozens of books, articles, reviews and liner notes. It also boasts access to scores of previously unseen letters and hours of unheard conversations Armstrong recorded.

This unprecedented access allows Teachout to paint an intimate view of Armstrong. He paints a frank view of Armstrong’s daily marijuana use, which led to his 1931 arrest in California. We learn about the murder threats Satchmo received from the Chicago mafia for. When former boxing promoter Joe Glaser promised to make the threats stop, Armstrong rewarded him with a lifetime appointment as his manager. With Glaser taking care of everything else, Armstrong was free to focus on the only thing that matter to him: music.

Ironically, Armstrong’s music was most vital when his life was in the most upheaval. When he cut his classic Hot Fives and Hot Sevens sides, he was in the middle of a failing marriage, having trouble keeping a steady band together, and running ragged across the country to poorly organized shows. Most of those problems went away when Glaser came on the scene, but Armstrong’s music also reached a plateau.

While the current crop of trumpet stars were heavily and obviously indebted to Armstrong’s trailblazing technique, they were also disappointed by Armstrong’s repetitive repertoire and unashamed desire to entertain (which hewed too close to minstrelsy for the newly empowered African American generation). Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis were among the most vocal of Armstrong’s critics.

Yet even Diz and Miles were forced to reconsider their opinions after Armstrong cancelled a State Department-sponsored trip to Russia in protest President Eisenhower’s tepid steps to integrate Central High School in Little Rock, Ark. (Armstrong later sent Eisenhower a congratulatory telegram when the crisis was resolved.) Armstrong gained with respect with the trio of albums he released on Columbia in the 1950s that showcased a long-dormant vitality and sense of adventure.

Detractors may have been surprised when Armstrong spoke out on segregation, but he’d been fighting it most of his life. The color line is drawn most sharply when Teachout looks at what might have been were Satchmo’s skin lighter by comparing his career with his friend Bing Crosby’s. While Crosby was given his own radio show and starring roles in Hollywood films, Armstrong had to settle for guest appearances on the air and supporting roles in low-budget films.

“Pops” revels in the details of Satchmo’s glory days, but it doesn’t skimp on the leaner parts of his career. The last quarter of Armstrong’s life receive nearly 100 pages. These chapters document Satchmo’s renaissance as not only a premier jazz talent, but showman whose love knew no age or national boundaries. Stories of “Hello Dolly” knocking the Beatles off the top of the chart or recording “(What A) Wonderful World” do not feel like curtain calls, but the natural continuation of a career.

Teachout’s findings are fascinating, but impenetrable at first. It takes several chapters to comfortably negotiate Teachout’s style. His habit of identifying sources in the text instead of footnotes makes for a clunky read. Sometimes the sourcing overwhelms the content. However, after becoming accustomed to Teachout’s style, “Pops” is a pleasant and illuminating read.

Keep reading:

Review: “The Oxford American: Book of Great Music Writing”

“Willie Nelson: An Epic Life” by Joe Nick Patoski

Review – “King of the Queen City”

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 327 other followers