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33 1/3 Roundup

Scott Tennent

Reviewed by Richard Whittaker, Fri., July 15, 2011

Summer Reading

33 Revolutions

'Chocolate and Cheese'
by Hank Shteamer
Continuum, 176 pp., $12.95 (paper)
'American Recordings'
by Tony Tost
Continuum, 224 pp., $12.95 (paper)
'Pretty Hate Machine'
by Daphne Carr
Continuum, 192 pp., $12.95 (paper)
'You're Living All Over Me'
by Nick Attfield
Continuum, 160 pp., $12.95 (paper)
'Spiderland'
by Scott Tennent
Continuum, 160 pp., $12.95 (paper)

No one can doubt the ambition of the 33 series, which deals in pocket-sized academic explorations of classic and underrated albums. Now at 83 volumes and counting, the peril of the franchise remains hagiography, like Hank Shteamer's uncritical love letter to Ween's 1994 LP, Chocolate and Cheese. Just as the ultra lo-fi duo shocked fans by hiring a producer, Shteamer might have benefited from a more critical editor to blunt his exuberance. Yet the fannish pendulum can swing too far the other way, into jaundiced evisceration. Poet Tony Tost needed something extraordinary to justify being the next writer in line to tread on Johnny Cash's grave. Instead, his flawed demythologizing of the Man in Black's 1993 resurrection on American Recordings reads like a drunk freshman hell-bent on swamping the reader with ill-fitting references to everyone from the Welsh bard Caedmon to Sarah Vowell, while smearing producer Rick Rubin as a grave robber. Crippled by Tost's smug erudition, this volume gets a failing grade compared to Daphne Carr's sociological examination of Nine Inch Nails' game-changing 1989 debut, Pretty Hate Machine. Ignore the last chapter, a misguided deconstruction of Hot Topic's role in shaping alt culture, and concentrate on Carr's revisionist portrait of Trent Reznor. Using first-person anecdotes from anonymous NIN fans, she recasts the industrial goth hero as a studio-savvy balladeer of the Rust Belt – part Prince, part Springsteen. If it feels like an accomplished master's thesis compared to Nick Attfield's hilarious history of Dinosaur Jr.'s 1987 sophomore album, You're Living All Over Me, there's no shame. After all, Attfield is an Oxford University lecturer, but there's no academic stuffiness here, with Attfield gleefully admitting to the ridiculousness of his task. Faced with a band whose lyrics are not so much enigmatic as willfully incoherent, he makes a solid case for this being a more significant album than follow-up Bug. It's only matched by Scott Tennent's insight into Slint's 1991 sophomore release and post-rock precursor, Spiderland. Part art history, part detective story, it represents the series' finest intentions: encouraging the reader to put the damn book down and listen to the album.

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