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Communication Breakdown

Led Zeppelin on LZ

Led Zeppelin on Led Zeppelin: Interviews and Encounters (Musicians in Their Own Words), edited by Hank Bordowitz (Chicago Review Press, $28.95, 458 pages)

“The Led Zeppelin show depends heavily on volume, repetition, and drums.” William S. Burroughs

Led Zeppelin on Led Zeppelin is a compilation of interviews conducted with, and articles about, the former mega band. Unfortunately, some of the contributors did not seem to know who or what they were writing about. One comments about the song “Days of Confusion” – actually “Dazed and Confused” – while another writes about the band’s “laid-back subtlety and studied professionalism.” Led Zeppelin, subtle?

The interviews are usually interesting but not enlightening. While Jimmy Page comes across as focused and consistent, Robert Plant is all over the place. Sometimes Plant sounds intelligent and thoughtful, at other times he’s flakey and nearly unintelligible. One who seeks to understand the band’s songwriting and recordings will definitely be frustrated. There’s a lot said about Zeppelin’s influences, but few attempts at analysis.

Most frustrating of all, it’s never made clear why the group that created the heavy blues rock genre abandoned it after just two albums. Although the question is raised numerous times in these pages, it’s never properly answered. (Other than Page’s statement that he did not want people to confuse Zeppelin with Black Sabbath.)

LZ

LZ II

Finally, there’s a 14-page essay by William S. Burroughs that was presumably supposed to be intellectual. In it, Burroughs writes about drinking multiple fingers of whiskey with Mr. Page. The entire chapter reads like it was written while Burroughs was quite drunk; it’s not far from the tiring, insipid Gonzo journalism of Hunter S. Thompson.

Led Zeppelin on Led Zeppelin may make a fine gift for those who love and must own all things Zeppelin. It will fall short of satisfying others.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher. This book was released on November 1, 2014.

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Music Review: The Olms

Is the debut album from The Olms a hit, a miss or something in between?

The Olms (300)

If you missed the rock music era that ran from the mid-60s through to the end of the 70s, you can catch up to some extent by listening to this eclectic collection of 10 retro songs from the Los Angeles-based group The Olms. The Olms are Pete Yorn, who gives off something of an Owen Wilson-crossed-with-Ray-Davies vibe, and J. D. King, a combination of George Harrison and Michael Clarke (the late Byrds drummer) in appearance. It’s perhaps no accident that you’ll hear echoes of The Kinks and The Byrds in their music.

This debut album runs a couple of seconds less than a half-hour in length, and it was recorded on analog tape. Listening to the CD sounds like you’re hearing a cassette version. Whether that’s good or bad is up to the listener, but it adds a period touch to the release.

Here’s a quick look at the tracks.

“On the Line” is like The Traveling Wilburys (“End of the Line”) mixed with the Kinks. The megaphone vocal is by King, while Yorn contributes Davies-style background vocals. “Someone Else’s Girl” could have been a track from Damn the Torpedoes by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. There’s also a touch of The Beatles’ “Things We Said Today” in the song. The music sounds like a weekend drive through Los Angeles. Blissful.

“Twice As Nice,” the first-ever Yorn/King composition is an uplifting song that calls to mind The Beach Boys and America. “Walking down Record Street at night….” Clever. “Wanna Feel It” is the single, which has a nice rhythm but ultimately goes nowhere. All promise and no delivery, which is perhaps why it ends abruptly two-thirds of the way through and segues into “A Bottle of Wine, etc.” This sounds like a late-period Byrds song that might have been included on either Sweetheart of the Rodeo or Dr. Byrd & Mr. Hyde. It melds beautiful lyrics with unique and playful instrumentation. “It’s a lonely world without the one you want.” Sweetly melancholic.

“Another Daydream” is a Pet Sounds-style song with a beautiful melody and the strangest lyrics since “A Horse With No Name”: “Koolaid sheik wandering the desert/Stranded in time feeling alone/Cold sweat drying in the garden/Cactus flower saying hello.” What?

“Rise and Shine” is by far the weakest song on the album. And it’s meaningless. “I check the kitchen but there’s no one there/I start the engine yet go nowhere.” This might have served as a throwaway track on an album by The Monkees.

“What Can I Do?” is Yorn’s full-on Ray Davies act. “You know it’s useless baby we can’t say goodbye/We’re going to be together till one of us dies!” “She Said No” is King’s gruesome yet entertaining song. It’s his serio-comic version of Neil Young’s “Down By the River.” “Only One Way” might have been the last track on a Byrds album. The lyrics say, “We’ll see you next time.” Yorn channels Davies again while King’s guitar work combines George Harrison and Roger McGuinn.

The Olms

All in all, The Olms is a mixed effort. The album has some high highs, but they’re counterbalanced by some very low lows. Although Yorn is quite a good drummer, the energy level is off compared to their live performances (Google the olms kcrw). When they played these songs in a live session at Apogee Studio for the KCRW audience in Los Angeles, there was a spark, a sense of joyfulness (Yorn played the opening chords to The Kinks’ “Lola” and sang a fine cover of “Love Is All Around” by The Troggs), and a love of life and playing that’s absent in the flat-by-comparison album versions. The songs were also played at a faster pace when played live.

It’s a shame that the excellent KCRW concert was not taped and released as the debut effort by this group. Still, The Olms serves as a heartfelt tribute to days gone by.

Joseph Arellano

A review CD was provided by a publicist. (Photo: Justin Wise/KCRW)

This review first appeared on the Blogcritics website:

Music Review: The Olms – ‘The Olms’

The review was also used by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer:

http://www.seattlepi.com/lifestyle/blogcritics/article/Music-Review-The-Olms-The-Olms-4849307.php

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For Whom The Bell Tolls

The Bee Gees: The Biography by David N. Meyer (Da Capo, $27.50)

Bee Gees Meyer 2

An attempt to de-mythologize the best-selling brothers Gibb that doesn’t even get the song titles right.

It’s hard to understand why David Meyer wrote this book. Moreover, who is the audience for it? The biography is not a tribute to the Bee Gees, which means that fans will have no reason to read it. It does its best to present the brothers Gibb as a strange band of brothers, but that will hardly be enough to convince non-fans to purchase the book.

The band bio is perhaps best described as an attempt to de-mythologize/bring down the musical group described on the jacket as, “[O]ne of the bestselling bands on the planet….” Meyer puts his cards on the table in the introduction (one as unnecessary as most introductions are). Here he tells readers that, while the Bee Gees “made hits for forty years, they sold a quarter of a billion albums, (and) everyone on earth knows their music… they still seem like they don’t really belong.” Really? Well, that’s one person’s foolish opinion.

Early on the book tries to dwell on things that might make the brothers appear to be unlikeable. For example, within the first 50 pages we’re informed that Maurice Gibb might have spent “an aggregate of $100 million on automobiles.” Except that Meyer is not reporting this as factual. Instead, he relates that, “It’s rumored he spent… $100 million on automobiles.” So it is not necessarily factual, and it has nothing to do with the group’s music.

Meyer proceeds in this realm by telling us that a young Barry Gibb once parked six expensive cars in front of his London flat. And if we haven’t got the point, there’s a photo of Barry standing in front of his Lotus, circa 1969. The relevance of this is what, exactly?

Since this is a book about an esteemed musical group, Meyer does try to provide some pseudo-analysis of the band’s music. But his heart doesn’t seem to be in it. As an example, he refers multiple times to a song called “Marley Putt Drive” recorded for the Odessa double album. He refers to “Marley Putt Drive” as a track with lyrics that are “beyond idiocy.” This might be a tad interesting, except for the fact that the song in question is actually “Marley Purt Drive.” How is it that one would set to write about a band’s music and not get the song titles right? (If one were to write about the Beatles and refer to one of their songs as “Nobody Man,” how much credibility would such a writer have?) And how is it that neither the writer nor an editor caught this error in the hardbound release?

The writer’s negative bias is glaring when he refers to the group’s mega-successful songs on the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack as “mediocre songs.” This is pretty tactless, pointless criticism, as when he writes of the song “Stayin’ Alive” that it is “a mechanistic artifact from a mechanistic genre, and tragically, soulless at its core.” Not only is this over the top, it reads like something written for a high school newspaper, overdramatic to its core.

As an illustration of how weak Meyer’s point is, he tells us that “Stayin’ Alive” “spent less time at #1 (in sales) than any other #1 (song) on the album.” Shocking and almost shameful! The group had multiple number one songs on this album, and this song was the least successful of the ultra-successful tracks. This must be the opposite of damning with faint praise.

When Brian Wilson inducted the Bee Gees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, he called them, “One of the greatest vocal groups ever assembled.” Consider the source in terms of praiseworthiness. Wilson went on to state: “There’s nothing more important than spiritual love in music. And the Bee Gees have given us this love in music.” Beautiful words which reflect the way the Bee Gees might properly be remembered.

The late Robin Gibb once wrote a bestselling song called “Saved by the Bell.” The bell may have already rung for David Meyer’s account; tragically, it did not ring timely in order to save us from it.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy of the finished book was received from the publisher.

This review first appeared on the Blogcritics site:

Book Review: ‘The Bee Gees: The Biography’ by David N. Meyer

The review was also used by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer:

http://www.seattlepi.com/lifestyle/blogcritics/article/Book-Review-The-Bee-Gees-The-Biography-by-4826973.php

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Positively Spot On

Out of the Vinyl Deeps: Ellen Willis on Rock Music (University of Minnesota Press, $22.95, 272 pages)

“I wish that for just one time/ You could stand inside my shoes/ And just for that one moment/ I could be you…” Bob Dylan, “Positively 4th Street

In the eternal quest to try to interpret the “real” meaning of Bob Dylan’s songs, some have speculated that “Positively 4th Street” is his retort to the many critics who emerged following Dylan’s controversial decision to “go electric.” Most people who have even some passing knowledge of music history have seen multiple examples of Dylan being cantankerous with the media, dating all the way back to the 1963 Newsweek article questioning his identity and past, and famously filmed in D.A. Pennebaker’s film Don’t Look Back.

Out of the Vinyl Deeps

Lately, Dylan has mellowed in that regard, or so it seems. Perhaps because he is now a revered survivor and not a young rebel.

What does Out of the Vinyl Deeps: Ellen Willis on Rock Music have to do with Dylan? Quite a bit as it turns out. This book is a compilation of writings on music by the late writer that appeared in a variety of publications, including her regular column for The New Yorker, “Rock, Etc.”, over a span of 34 years. The book is edited by her daughter Nona Willis Aronowitz, and virtually every column and essay that doesn’t actually address Dylan, references him. Judging by Willis’ intuitive take on the music as it interweaves with the various time periods, her insightful commentary, and fine writing, this would be one critic who Dylan might actually like.

Willis drops a few names, but rarely seems caught up with celebrity. For her, it is all about the music. Her favorites, in addition to Dylan, are Lou Reed, The New York Dolls, and the Rolling Stones. Many others receive prominent mention, including Creedence Clearwater Revival, an often under-rated band, and others ranging from obscure to superstar, such as Bruce Springsteen. Willis was a feminist who could objectively analyze the art for its strengths and flaws without either coming across as a man-hater or relinquishing her status as a fan — two of the three would be pretty good, but to pull off all three makes for a damn interesting and good writer.

Fifty-nine short pieces are divided into six themes: World-Class Critic, The Adoring Fan, The Sixties Child, The Feminist, The Navigator, and The Sociologist. The first entry is on Dylan, and the last is a commentary on her philosophy of the role of music in society that mentions him in the third to last paragraph of the book. The final paragraph invokes Little Richard and The Ramones in the same sentence. How great is that?

This book is perfect for any 60s/70s rock-and-roll head. No doubt they would be overcome with nostalgia. But for those who are just as fanatical, but younger — who love the music just the same — and who perhaps even fancy themselves a bit knowledgeable about rock’s history and the great music of this era, they, too, will love Deeps because Willis is one writer who can make you feel like you were there.

Highly recommended for music lovers of all ages.

Dave Moyer

Out of the Vinyl Deeps is available as a Kindle Edition download. This book was purchased for review.

Dave Moyer is an educator who thinks a lot about rock music. A drummer, he has not yet played for the Rolling Stones. His book about baseball and Bob Dylan is entitled, Life and Life Only: A Novel.

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Hallelujah

The Holy or The Broken (nook book)The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, and The Unlikely Ascent of “Hallelujah” by Alan Light (Atria Books, $25.00, 254 pages)

“People keep finding the song in new ways… I’ve had kids talk to me about ‘Hallelujah’ as if they were the only ones who knew it – it’s a cult classic, like the world’s biggest sleeper hit. It’s like joining a club.” Singer Patrick Stump of the band Fall Out Boy

There are some nonfiction books that read like – and were written as, long versions of magazine articles. These tend to be books with lots of filler, in which not so much new information is found. Such is not the case with The Holy or the Broken – while it reads like it might have begun its existence in the form of a possible magazine article, there’s plenty of new and valuable information here, especially for music fans. For the less knowledgeable, this account may lead them to pursue more information about Leonard Cohen or Jeff Buckley or other musicians named within its pages.

This is the fascinating true story of Cohen’s writing a song included within an album that his record company refused to release. The song would not be discovered and appreciated for 13 years, and – as referenced in the subtitle, it was the late Jeff Buckley’s vibrant cover version that was to make it a worldwide phenomenon. The song is now a staple of televised singing competitions such as American Idol, The Voice and The X Factor.

Author Light details how Cohen’s song – a mixture of joyful and sorrowful sentiments, has benefited from being used as an anthem following tragic events such as 9/11, and via its frequent use on TV and motion picture soundtracks (including Shrek). There’s also the fact that musicians as varied as Bob Dylan, Bono, Sheryl Crowe, Justin Timberlake, Susan Boyle, Rufus Wainright, Lee DeWyze, Willie Nelson, Neil Diamond and k.d. lang have either covered it and/or performed it on stage. The song has become an industry onto itself; one publisher calling the song “a brand.”

The one negative about the narrative is that Light, a former editor-in-chief at Spin magazine, incorporates a bit too much of his personal tastes into the telling – becoming, if you will, more rock critic than unbiased historian. Still, there’s ample fascinating stuff to chew on here – one example being that John Lissauer, the producer of Cohen’s initially-unreleased album Various Positions (which contained Cohen’s original version of “Hallelujah”) confesses that, “I felt like I’d ruined (Cohen’s) career.” Far from it!

“When you hear the Jeff Buckley version, it’s so intimate it’s almost like you’re invading his personal space, or you’re listening to something that you weren’t supposed to hear.” Jake Shimaburkuro

“It’s a hymn to being alive. It’s a hymn to love lost. To love. Even the pain of existence…” Jeff Buckley

The Holy or the Broken is well recommended.

Readers or music lovers wishing to learn more may want to read the excellent book Dream Brother: The Lives and Music of Jeff and Tim Buckley by David Browne, and the new biography I’m You’re Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen by Sylvie Simmons.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher. The Holy or the Broken is also available as a Nook Book or Kindle Edition download.

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A Woman of Heart and Mind

Joni: The Creative Odyssey of Joni Mitchell by Katherine Novak (Greystone, $21.00, 298 pages)

Joni Mitchell, a self-described woman of heart and mind, never shows up within the pages of Joni.   There are a couple of reasons for this.   First, Katherine Monk never had the opportunity to interact with Ms. Mitchell, leaving her unable to shed light on the human being.   Second, Monk sought to create a quasi-academic treatise on the subject of Philosophy and Religion and the Music of Joni Mitchell.   Frankly, it’s simply not that interesting even if one was (like this reader) a Philosophy and Religion major in college.

No, this is not another fan’s tribute to Joni; instead, it’s a somewhat overwrought collection of essays that seeks to find the meaning of Mitchell’s music via the words of Nietzsche and other philosophers.   This is painful enough, but just when one hopes that she won’t throw religious figures into the analytical mix, she proceeds to discuss St. Augustine and revisit the biblical Story of Job.   In the end – in the words of Bob Dylan, nothing is revealed.

Mitchell herself once said that writing about music is like trying to dance to architecture.   Picking up a copy of Joni’s Blue or For the Roses album is much preferable to attempting this strange dance.   Very much preferable.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.  

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Judgement of the Moon and Stars

The Impression

Recently, I was communicating with an author when he happened to reference the “judgment” contained in book reviews.   And that’s when it dawned on me that I don’t see reviews as necessarily being judgmental; instead, I see them as impressions.   A review reflects the way in which a reader-reviewer perceives the book at a particular point in time in his/her life.   As with everything in life, this is subject to change.   It may be, for example, that a novel that a reviewer could not get into while battling an illness would be highly enjoyable at another time.   Many of us have had the experience of reading a particular book years ago and labeling it as a favorite, only to be surprised when we return to that book and find it flat and dull.   Did the book change in any way in the interim?   No, our life – the reader’s life – changed in such a way as to change our perspective of the book.

Let’s think about this in terms of a physical landmark.   Let’s say that I view the Golden Gate Bridge on four occasions – firstly in the middle of the afternoon on a warm and sunny day, next during a rainstorm, then while the bridge is bathed in fog, and lastly on a moonlit night.   Each time the bridge will appear to be different, and I would likely describe the bridge in different terms if I were writing about it.   The bridge itself never changes, but my view of it – my impression – will change based on external factors.

So, one thing to keep in mind while reading a review is that it’s a point-in-time statement.   It’s also something that’s subject to revision.   The reviewer who slammed a book with a negative review might find, to his surprise, that he enjoys it when he looks at it months later.   And the reviewer who loved a book and added it to her personal collection might wonder a year or two later why she loved it – something she’ll ponder while putting it on the giveaway stack.

What does this mean for an author?   Simply that both positive and negative reviews can be discounted.   The book that one reviewer perceived as a flop may be a hit later, and vice versa.   Life changes and so do impressions.

The Choice

The author of a recent survey book noted something interesting about how film and book reviewers are perceived.   According to a study referenced in the book, the authors of generally negative reviews are viewed as more intelligent than reviewers who almost always draft positive reviews.   This is due to the perception that “anyone can say nice things,” while the negative reviewer is seen as a person who must have an extensive in-depth background – otherwise, how would he/she know what to nitpick and criticize?   This does not mean, however, that the average person prefers to read the reviews of a generally negative reviewer.

When given a choice between reading mostly negative or positive reviews, the typical person will more often select the positive ones.   And when asked about the people who write the reviews, most people will select the positive one as the nicer person – the nicer person is, therefore, the one whose reviews are read more.   So this leads to a choice among limited options for the book reviewer.   Do you want to be perceived as smart and well-read, or as the less smart writer whose reviews are more often read?

The appropriate response may be to write a mix of positive and not so positive reviews, so that one is viewed as both smart and nice, if not both at the same time.

Joseph Arellano

Pictured – The Other Life: A Novel by Ellen Meister ($24.95, 320 pages) which will be released by Putnam Adult Books on February 17, 2011.

Note:  After writing this article, I happened to come across the following statement from Robert Christgau, music critic for the Village Voice:  “I don’t usually fluctuate wildly with what I initially thought about an album because I wait to write the review until I know what I think…  My first judgment is solid and secure.   But records do tend to either gain or lose aura as decades pass.”

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