Monday, August 22, 2011

Book Review: 33 1/3 #70 Facing Future

I felt odd reading a book about an album I'd never really listened to. I checked out some of the songs through the magic of downloads and YouTube, but for the most part, I came to Dan Kois' volume on Israel "Iz" Kamakawiwo'Ole's Facing Future as an outsider. This is doubly fitting as, throughout my reading of Kois' volume, I felt like a cultural outsider--but in a good way. And that's what makes Kois' volume on Facing Future such a compelling read--the book is as much about Hawaii's culture, music industry, and values as it is about Iz's album. Truth be told, as a straight forward "album book," Facing Future is a bit pedestrian--Kois traces the history of the performer and the songs well enough, but where the book finds its stride is in its dealings with the specifics of Hawaiian popular culture. That is to say, before reading Kois' book, I never would have guessed or suspected how much of a local music industry Hawaii has, nor would I have supposed that this industry would mirror the mainstream (or mainland) record business, only in miniature. And I definitely wouldn't have dreamed of the existence of Jawaiian music (thank god). While this resulted in a bit of me "othering" a different culture as I read, that was through no fault of the author. In fact, every step of the way, Kois is sensitive to and respectful of the Hawaiian culture he is exploring.

In all honesty, Kois' empathy is the key to this volume. From the opening pages in which he tells the tale of Iz recording the famous "Over the Rainbow/What a Wonderful World" medley in the middle of the night after a night of drinking and possibly drugging, to the treatment of Iz's desire for his family to be taken care of after his inevitable early death, Kois' prose is rich with a sincere pathos that brings Iz and the people surrounding him to life in ways rare for "album books." One of Kois' other strengths is his sincere even-handedness in dealing with local label "politics." For instance, Kois is willing to present Jon de Mello as both a hero in Iz's story, and a villain (or at least an unsavory opportunist) depending on who is talking. That Kois never really comes down on either side of the issue but merely presents the various attitudes toward de Mello is a nice change of pace from other rock books that are quick to label key players as heroes or villains and focus on those roles through the entirety of their involvement in the project.

So there it is--I don't have much to say about this book because I've never been terribly invested in Iz's music. That being said, Kois' volume was interesting thanks in large part to his ability to write well and bring Iz and the people around him to life while also painting a vivid picture of Hawaii and its culture. Sure, the book gets a bit tedious for a spell when Kois lapses into that oh-so-tired trope of the "song by song" analysis (stop it 33 1/3 writers, it's boring and lazy), but all in all, Dan Kois' exploration of Iz's Facing Future and Hawaii is well worth the read, whether your sick to death of "Over the Rainbow" or not.

Next up, the volume on XO, in which I admit to liking the song-by-song structure for once.

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