When Liner Notes Just Aren’t Enough

The Finest Album Companions

In the “digital age” of MP3s and iPods it’s easy to forget about one of the truly unique parts of an album; the liner notes. These little foldouts that come with CDs and the larger inserts that once were so caringly paired with vinyl, often serve as more than just outlets for the tracklisting and endless shout outs from the artists and producers involved in the recording. From song lyrics, album mission statements, recording session notes, to galleries for album art, liner notes enable dedicated listeners to crack the musical shell and dive deeper into the record’s artistic core. For true music übernerds or really anyone looking to learn a little more about their favorite albums sometimes liner notes just don’t cut it.

Back in 2003 a group of music enthusiasts started the Thirty-Three and a Third series, a collection of pocket size books for loyal listeners looking to enhance their knowledge of their favorite albums. The series set out to examine a diverse range of pinnacle albums of the past 50 years, everything from undisputed masterpieces (The Beatles’ Let It Be, The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, Neil Young’s Harvest), lesser known indie-gems (Magnetic Fields’ 69 Love Songs, Belle and Sebastian’s If You’re Feeling Sinister), to overlooked albums from stellar artists (Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland, David Bowie’s Low). Consider this column a recommendation to fellow music lovers who may not be familiar with this wonderful series.

The growing anthology (50 books currently available with roughly 20 plus slated for future release) provides curious listeners with a look at how the album was created–from the initial incarnation, to the recording process, followed by the release and the album’s aftermath–and then discusses the records importance in the wide arena of popular music. These quick reads (average editions range from 100-200 pages in pocket size formats) are brilliant ways to explore another side of some classic albums for five reasons:

1) For starters, they’re highly addictive, providing listeners with an easy fix of background information pertaining to a slew of stellar albums. Some books use interviews with the bands or artists to tell the story others focus on the album’s shear importance; all provide that extra bit of insight not found on a mere record listening or skimming of the liner notes.

2) Pretentiousness is not the series forte. While the writers do choose to chronicle some universally agreed upon monumental albums (Pet Sounds and Let It Be for example) for the most part the authors and contributors are more interested in tackling the less obvious, under-hyped records (Nirvana’s In Utero over Nevermind, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn over Dark Side of the Moon) as well as lesser known picks (where else could you find an entire book devoted to the minister of weird, Tom Waits’, Swordfishtrombones or Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea).

3) The scribes range from well-known music journalists, scholars and even musicians (The Decemberists’ frontman Colin Meloy contributed a surprisingly disappointing self-indulged look at The Replacements Let It Be), giving each book a unique voice to tell the story of each album.

4) At eight to ten bucks a hit these books are cheap companion pieces to albums you already own or ones you may want to indulge in (and no I am not a savvy member of the company’s PR department, but rather a humble fan of the series who has been hooked ever since I discovered them two years ago).

5) Finally, with an entire history of noteworthy albums at their disposal and fans all around the world eager to learn more about the records that hold a special place in their hearts (the series’ official blog encourages readers to voice their opinions of which albums should be chronicled next), the possibilities for this series are endless.

The impressive canon so far is bound to provide at least something for everyone, from casual listeners to “High Fidelity”esque music elitists. Some books that I’ve read are disappointing (the daunting edition on Zeppelin’s IV spends more time discussing the mystery behind the band’s use of “zoso” mystic symbols/identities and fascination with the occult than the record’s conception or music) while other subject choices are a bit baffling (book #7 tackles ABBA Gold, a greatest hits compilation of the boisterous 70s Swedish band’s disco blahs and this December marks the release of a book examining Céline Dion’s Let’s Talk About Love). Still, because the series taps into every pop genre and sub genre spanning the second half of the 20th century, the books are in many ways a complete modern musical history told one signature album at a time.

Bookstores around the world are saturated with writings and ramblings on popular music. While an entire encyclopedia devoted to the career of Bob Dylan or the making of Revolver is warranted and welcome amongst avid music lovers, there is something comforting about the 33 1/3 series, which seeks out the less obvious album gems. Rather than utilizing pompous music historians the majority of this series channels the best music writers, the faithful fans.

We all have a short list of albums that truly changed our lives and what’s nice about this series is that there are others out there who share the same passions. For every Beatles or Stones aficionado there is someone who is equally passionate about a lesser-known group like The Minutemen (book #45 Double Nickels on the Dime) or Love (book #2 Forever Changes), or a singer songwriter like PJ Harvey (book #48 Rid of Me). The 33 1/3 series serves as a vehicle for the communal appreciation of great music going above and beyond the content found on the liner notes of the albums we love and cherish.

For more information on the series visit 33third.blogspot.com .


Album Review: Low, David Bowie

Low (1977)
David Bowie
Virgin Records

A Futuristic Sound and Vision

David Bowie has always been somewhat of a chameleon in the rock and roll arena. He single-handedly jumpstarted the glam rock scene of the 1970’s, paving the roads for other artists like Mott the Hoople, Iggy Pop and T-Rex, to name a few–and since then has moved from genre to genre, style to style with the comfort and ease of an artist determined to challenge himself and the world of music.

Low was the first of three albums known as the Berlin Trilogy (the others being 1977s Heroes and 1979s Lodger) that Bowie recorded in Berlin with ex-Roxy Music member/ambient soundscape connoisseur Brian Eno.

Following his brilliant but short 1976 album Station to Station, an album that was in many ways a spawn of his growing addiction to cocaine, Bowie moved to Cold War-riddled Germany to work and tour with friend Iggy Pop. The result of his time there was a trio of albums that, while stepping away from the more mainstream and conventional David Bowie, remain some of the artists finest to date.

With Low Bowie strays away from the pop-friendly songs of previous successes such as 1975s Young Americans or the unprecedented and most well-known The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust. The album is harshly divided between futuristic, avant-garde synth rock tracks that are reminiscent of early German techno/Kraut Rock groups such as Neu! or Kraftwerk, and dense, often completely instrumental compositions that reflect Eno’s prior ambient records such as Another Green World.

The first half of Low features Bowie experimenting with the radio friendly rock of his past. Tracks like the album’s one surprising pop hit “Sound and Vision” or the cool, stripped down jazz/rock cut “Always Crashing in the Same Car” are catchy but at the same time require an avid listener due to bizarre vocal distortion and unusual instrumentation.

Lyrics fade on the radically different second half, which relies on five heavy, often depressing yet curiously beautiful instrumental compositions that include the doleful epic “Warszawa” (which may be Bowie’s symphonic opus about Poland’s anguish plagued capital) and the mysterious and lethargic, but utterly breathtaking closer “Subterraneans.”

While Low is without a doubt the most inaccessible and challenging album of the Berlin Trilogy and possibly out of Bowie’s entire catalogue, it still stands at the meridian of this versatile artist’s musical gamut. It paved the way for Bowie’s future reptilian style shifts, influenced artists like Trent Reznor who claims Low was partially responsible for his Downward Spiral album and to this day remains one of the finest ventures into experimental rock out there.