Monday, April 25, 2011

Book Review: 33 1/3 #74 Song Cycle

It would be an understatement to say this is merely sad. Even the Wikipedia page for the album provides very little information or insight into an album that, by all means, is one of the best of the 60's. This isn't surprising, of course, as Song Cycle was barely purchased upon its release, and its praises rarely sung by any but the most well-informed critics in the decades following the album's entrance into the world of popular music. As such, the task of anyone choosing to write about an album like Song Cycle might be a bit daunting. In his entry into the 33 1/3 series about Parks' album, Richard Henderson largely rises to the occasion with a volume that is very purposeful and thorough, if a bit dry at times. Of course, saying the book is dry "at times" might also be a bit of an understatement. In all honesty, Henderson's volume, while well written on a technical level, is a bit of a slog because the author is so dedicated to the album's (and Parks') history that it's easy for a reader to get swallowed up in the dense torrents of information. Henderson occasionally tries to get playful--especially in the book's first section, which happens to be a highlight--but ultimately, while full of outstanding information, the volume is a bit of a drag to read.

But that's okay for this book. In past reviews of 33 1/3 books I've been quite critical of overly-traditional approaches to the featured albums. Song-by-song summaries and analyses, chapters that compartmentalize the various facets of an album's production and reception, loads of facts without any fresh ideas--these are all elements of 33 1/3 books I've taken issue with in the past, and all of them are present in Henderson's Song Cycle. But while a plethora of books have been written about, say, AC/DC and plenty of articles written about and interviews conducted with My Bloody Valentine, Henderson's work on Parks is filling a glaring void. We see this even more when we look at the bibliography at the back of Henderson's volume and see it filled with books about Brian Wilson, 60's pop music, California pop music, recording studio histories, record label histories--but nothing about Van Dyke Parks. So yes, Henderson's Song Cycle is dry and even a bit banal, but the author had little choice. Many authors of 33 1/3 books have had the benefit of a rich and varied body of writing about their chosen albums from which to draw, which ultimately frees them to approach said albums from interesting and unique angles. Henderson did not have this luxury.

And of course, there are some fascinating and engaging moments throughout the book. In particular, the opening chapter, in which Henderson describes how he came to the album, is fun and engaging, and the section dealing with the controversial marketing of Song Cycle is a wonderful case study of the 60's music industry and the tensions that arose between "big business" and "counter-culture" art.

But by and and large, Henderson's Song Cycle is more the type of book that fans and scholars of pop music should read rather than one they'll necessarily want to read. And that's fine--because they should read the book. They just shouldn't expect to have their socks knocked off with the exciting prose and new insights that the 33 1/3 series has been so good at providing as of late.


Next Up: I don't know--my stack of unread 33 1/3's has grown immensely. I might pick one at random.

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