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Striking the Write Notes

  Da Capo Best Music Writing 2003
Matt Groening (editor)
Da Capo Press, 2003
Rating: 4.0

Posted: January 20, 2004

By Kevin Forest Moreau

There's plenty of good writing in the world. Yes, Virginia, even good music writing. But collections and anthologies that purport to present the "Best" of any particular kind of writing -- be it mysteries, travel essays or movie reviews -- are dependent upon more than just good writing: They need someone with a firm hand on the tiller, someone to separate the wheat from the chaff. Put another way: The best "Best Writing" compilation is only as good as its editor.

Or guest editor, in the case of Da Capo Press's annual collection of music pieces. For its 2003 edition (frustratingly misnamed, since it really covers pieces published in 2002), the publisher picked The Simpsons creator and former music journalist Matt Groening. That choice would seem to bode well for the collection, since Groening -- the man recruited to curate the Los Angeles installment of last year's All Tomorrow's Parties music festival; the guy whose Life in Hell strip has appeared in alternative weekly papers since the Pleistocene Era -- would seem to know a little something about music (even if The Simpsons often drafts banal or over-the-hill acts to appear on the show).

Or does he? As he states in the book's introduction: "Please don't ask me about Springsteen or Dylan or U2 or Radiohead or the White Stripes or 50 Cent or that jerk with the hat or that dead lady." Groening's not the first person in the world to brag about how out of touch he is with popular culture (or at least the musical end of the pop-culture spectrum). Still, it's an odd trait to brag about when you're presenting a hand-picked collection of essays about, well, the musical end of the pop-cultural spectrum.

Luckily, Groening's happy isolation from the book's subject matter isn't a huge impediment. For the most part, he does stick to his stated criteria: "Essays jammed with information and conveyed with style, passion, and wit." One doesn't need to be well-versed in the minutiae of the blues, for instance, to enjoy (and learn a lot from) "White Man at the Door," novelist Jay McInerny's absorbing profile of Matt Johnson, head of the Mississippi-based Fat Possum Records, home to raw, gut-bucket bluesmen like T-Model Ford and R.L. Burnside. Same with Susan Orlean's "The Congo Sound," which introduces readers to various strains of African music via a boutique record store in Paris.

Being a man who's made his living from humor, Groening can't resist the inclusion of a few cutesy pieces, including the obligatory music-themed article from The Onion; in this case, the amusing but not terribly insightful "37 Record-Store Clerks Feared Dead in Yo La Tengo Concert Disaster." (If picking a piece from The Onion has come to seem painfully hip, Groening at least avoids the writing of that paper's actual music critics, whose brainy, serious reviews do their best to counter The Onion's satirical zing.)

Groening also seems attracted to self-consciously clever writers like SPIN's Chuck Klosterman, whose human-interest piece about a convention full of young Latino fans of the mope-rock demigod Morrissey is played mostly for cheap, one-note laughs. And then there's Wil S. Hylton's "The Master of Everything (and Nothing at All)," a well-researched profile on Beck that suffers for the writer's inability to separate arch, overly self-important prose (the article is written in the second person, and is written in such a way that without benefit of the photos that ran with its original publication in Esquire, takes some readers half of its length before they figure out who the subject is).

Not all such pieces hobble the book: The opening selection, Bill Tuomala's "Best Band in the Land," imagines a world in which Van Halen is a critically appreciated but commercially unsuccessful group, while bands like the Replacements achieve worldwide fame. The high point comes when Paul Westerberg fictitiously points out the similarities in approach between his band and Van Halen, thus pointing out (in reverse) a failure of critical objectivity: "Our albums are all thirty minutes long, we play half our shows drunk off our asses and everyone says we take our fans for granted. Van Halen's albums are all thirty minutes long, they play half their shows drunk off their asses and they get hailed as some sort of charming throwback to the very essence of real rock 'n' roll."

Of course, not every article in the book needs to resort to humor or speculative fantasy to get its point across, and some of the best pieces succeed because of their directness, including Paul Tough's examination of the role that sense of place plays in the music of Winnipeg's the Weakerthans ; Lynn Hirschberg's "Who's That Girl?", which profiles the behind-the-scenes machinations of the star-making process; Paul Beston's touching look at Warren Zevon announcing his fatal condition on The Late Show; and Terry McDermott's "Parental Advisory: Explicit Lyrics," a fascinating history of the origins of N.W.A.

If not every selection succeeds (Elizabeth Gilbert's "Play it Like Your Hair's On Fire," a profile of Tom Waits, is bogged down by her too-fawning tone and insistence on inserting herself into the story, while Gary Gidden's "Post-War Jazz: An Arbitrary Road Map" is simply a highly subjective and far too random list of 50 years' worth of notable jazz recordings), Groening doesn't pick any real clunkers. And he does manage to steer clear of Rolling Stone -- although a piece from the doggedly shrill online magazine Pitchfork, a bastion of poor grammar, questionable writing skill and off-putting indie-rock dogma, does make the B- List ("Other Notable Essays of 2002"). The breadth of writing styles and subject matter on display ensures that even diehard music geeks (and knowledgeable rock critics) will learn something new, and find enough entertainment besides to more than justify the cost of admission.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A masterwork
 4.0-4.9: Great read
 3.0-3.9: Well done
 2.0-2.9: Ordinary
 1.1-1.9: Sub par
 0.0-1.0: Horrendous

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