Sunday, December 12, 2010

Book Review: 33 1/3 #75 Spiderland

As I've been reading all of these 33 1/3 books, I've noticed certain approaches that work better or worse than others. One of the less successful approaches is the historical approach to an album. I'm not talking about the books that attempt to situate an album within a broader socio-political context--in fact, those books tend to be among the best. I'm talking about the books that just give us a straight-up history of a band and/or album. The problem with many of these books, it seems, is that most of these histories have already been told. This is why, I suspect, I've been getting particularly excited about several of the 33 1/3 books that deal with albums from the 90's. These albums haven't been discussed to death the way so many 60's and 70's classics have been. We are left with plenty of room to explore and learn new things that we haven't already pieced together from dozens of biographies, decade lists, and reviews of reissues. This is why, despite being an almost entirely historical account of Slint's formation, recording, and dissolution, Scott Tennent's 33 1/3 volume on Spiderland is an entirely engaging and entertaining read. Not only is Tennent writing a pretty great and interesting book about a seminal album, he's documenting the foundational history of that album in a way that I'm not sure has ever been done before.

To be sure, the first three-quarters of Tennent's Spiderland are easy to love, and easier to get lost in. Tennent gives us a fairly plain play-by-play of Pajo's, Walford's, McMahan's and Brashear's pre-Slint days, explains how they came together, then discusses the band's early history leading up to and including the recording of Spiderland. To say it like this almost makes the book sound a bit underwhelming. It's not. By staying out of the way of these stories, and simply reporting the twists and turns that brought the Slint boys together, Tennent allows their stories to come to life in ways that will be fun and exciting for anyone who has ever been an active participant (or spectator) in any kind-of-sort-of punk scene. The early history is full of drama and excitement. We get the excitement surrounding Squirrel Bait, but also the lesser-known, but equally important (to Slint) weirdness surrounding Maurice. Tennent's treatment of Slint's prehistory is so effective because it speaks to what it means to be youthful and optimistic. In describing Slint's history, Tennent is tapping in to something electric and fun--the feeling of being young and either in or surrounded by good bands. There isn't a feeling quite like it, and here Tennent does a nice job of bringing that excitement to the forefront in his book.

Tennent's prose shines the most when dealing with the history of Slint. The only place where this volume stumbles is in the thirty page section dedicated to analyzing Spiderland the album. Tennent makes attempts to give the song-by-song analysis a through-thread by arguing that, though Slint were primarily known for their dynamics, those dynamics are only interesting because of the music's overall complexity. Unfortunately, Tennent isn't quite able to pull this argument off, and we're left with an occasionally interesting, but largely descriptive chapter. Tennent brings us back to the riveting tale of Slint, however, by closing the book with a description of the band's oddly abrupt and frustrating dissolution. I won't spoil the plot for anyone who doesn't know how it ends.

All in all, this is one of the more exciting and fun volumes in the 33 1/3 series. Tennent does some very difficult things very well in this book--he manages to portray the 1980's Louisville punk scene in vivid detail, and put his characters--Slint--in the middle of it all. At the same time, we get brief glimpses of adjacent places (Cincinnati and Chicago are both mentioned at times, the later more frequently) and supporting players (Will Oldham, to name one). The result is a history of Slint, and ultimately Spiderland, that feels like a living, breathing thing. And of course, it doesn't hurt if you knew enough guys like this that you kind of, sort of feel like you could've been there, even if you weren't.


This week we'll be rolling out our Albums of the Year list for 2010, so stay tuned. After that, I'll be looking at Kate Schatz's volume of short stories based on PJ Harvey's Rid of Me.

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