Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Alex Green - The Stone Roses (2006)

I'm again going to do something a little different for this review. You may be familiar with the 33⅓ series of books about albums. The albums reviewed range from classic 60s albums to a few more recent releases already hailed as classics. I don't know how authors or albums are selected, but their choices are usually very good. I've read several, including ones on Radiohead's OK Computer, The Kinks' The Village Green Preservation Society, and the Velvet Underground's The Velvet Underground & Nico. I have to say, the series is very inconsistent (in terms of quality and style), which is natural due to each book being written by a different author. Therefore, that isn't necessarily a bad thing.

I found the Village Green and Unknown Pleasures books to be incredible descriptions of the albums as whole units and as collections of the individual songs, additionally including thorough historical background and information on outtakes and contemporaneous singles, television appearances, and so on. I found the OK Computer book to be a bit tangentially distracted (too much discussion of "keeping songs alive" and on mathematical analysis of song length with no actual discussion of the relevance), but the worst so far was the one for the Smiths' Meat Is Murder. Instead of a biography of the band or a contextual essay, the book was a fictional account in which the characters adore the album. This was far from enlightening, and the countless overuse of clichés made it a tedious chore to finish the book.

I just finished reading a book on The Stone Roses' self-titled debut album, written by Alex Green. The album was originally released in 1989 and the book was published in 2006. I admit that I don't quite know how to structure this review, since it will be impossible to discuss the book without discussing the album. I think I'll give some background first.

Title: The Stone Roses
Author: Alex Green
Publisher: Continuum
Year: 2006
Series: 33⅓ #33

The Stone Roses is a fantastic album, often hailed as the best British album or just the best album ever. The band preceded the album with three singles: the gothy "So Young" in 1985, the shimmering "Sally Cinnamon" in 1987, and the funky "Elephant Stone" in 1988. "Elephant Stone" was included on US releases of the album (but not in the UK). After two album tracks were released as singles ("Made of Stone" and "She Bangs the Drums"), two non-album singles were released ("Fools Gold"/"What the World Is Waiting For" and "One Love") followed by three more album track singles ("I Wanna Be Adored", "Waterfall", and "I Am the Resurrection"). Then the band tried to jump their label, fought a long legal battle, eventually won, and released a mediocre album in 1994 before losing members one after the other and breaking up in 1996. A sad tale of lost potential.

The album itself is a work of art (literally, in the sense that the cover is a Jackson Pollock-inspired piece by guitarist John Squire, but more so just because of how good it is). The production and general sound is somehow simultaneously rooted in 60s pop, enmeshed as a definite product of the 80s, and yet different from almost anything else. It's a guitar album, but the vocals and drumwork are wonderfully done. The lyrics are slightly difficult to make sense of, but the possible interpretations are a pleasure to ponder. Perhaps the best part is the general sense of grandiosity offered by beginning the album in a long fade-in build-up of effects followed eventually by bass and then the rest of the instrumentation while singing "I Wanna Be Adored" (whose lyrics don't get much more complex than that) and then ending the album with a song like "I Am the Resurrection", replete with complex drumming, a great bassline, and two great and different choruses, one being a harsh indictment ("Don't waste your words / I don't need anything from you / I don't care where you've been / Or what you plan to do") and the other a more bombastic approach to a similar theme, but not without religious imagery ("I am the resurrection and I am the light / I couldn't ever bring myself / To hate you as I'd like"), before ending the song with a four-minute overdub-happy jam session that actually works really well. I apologize for the long sentence, but honestly, you think that last song is done, but the bass just doesn't quite want to stop and suddenly the drums and guitar are like "oh wait, we're not done yet" and then the awesome workout begins.

So the book. Green goes through the album one song at a time (like the majority of authors in the 33⅓ series) and discusses some aspect of the band or their environment at the time of recording and then briefly discusses the song. The unfortunate part of this is that there are really only a small number of pages devoted to each song (usually two or three), but we do learn a lot about the era and the scene. This is arguably extraneous, but if it had been included alongside a more thorough analysis of the actual songs, I would have been more appreciative. There's a lot of information about ecstacy and Margaret Thatcher (which is more or less appropriate considering the drug culture of the time and the clear fact that "Elizabeth My Dear" is about assassinating the Queen) but only only a limited demonstration of the connectivity of the discussed topics to the band itself and a mere small dose of information about the band's public appearances and activities.

When Green does analyze the actual musical material, he's usually good, but he seems to leave things out and keep his discussion brief. Given the space of an entire book, he has the space to say so much, yet he doesn't dig all that deep. Each song has its lyrics painted in one particular color, sometimes in a bit of a stretch to interpret the words, but also sometimes quite insightful. I think "Made of Stone" is more about an outsider gleefully observing a scene of destruction than about a drug trip, like Green suspects, and I really don't think "She Bangs the Drums" is in the slightest bit political, but "Elephant Stone" probably is about drugs and "This Is the One" is probably about a lopsided view about a relationship that's about to change.

Green also talks about some of the production values, most especially the reverse-track with overdubs that sums up "Don't Stop", but he doesn't even mention the envelope effect at the end of "This Is the One" or the multiple guitar overdubs used nearly every track. One of the best things about this album is the guitarwork, and not even mentioning overdub misses out on so much of the story. John Squire is a great guitarist, but he layered things up wonderfully. (Also funny is that Green writes a lot about how the Stone Roses are so different than the Smiths, but both bands loved their countless guitar overdubs done by a single guitarist.) Many songs are built around two clearly different guitar tones, both very effects-laden, often to the point of sounding like chimes or a piano. (How this was adapted to the live environment is a mystery to me, and Green doesn't seem to notice.)

Green also gets distracted by a lot of personal anecdotes and footnotes, often combining the two. I don't really mind all that much, but it doesn't really add anything. Furthermore, Green never speaks ill of any particular song – either himself or a quote by another musician or magazine is used to effectively say that every song on the album is either the best or at least utterly great. There is no negativity; this is pure worship. There are a lot of quotes in here, and most of them are pretty reputable – Alan McGee, founder of Creation Records; Dave Newton, guitarist of The Mighty Lemon Drops; the band themselves, and so on. Presumably, if all these other bands speak so highly of the band, and the press was similarly positive, maybe worship isn't the wrong choice.

Although I have been picking apart the book and focusing only on criticisms, the book is fairly well done. The analysis that is present is well done, and some of the background and whatnot is really good, but there is so much in the book that didn't need to be there compared to what could have been there that I would say it failed to live up to its potential. It's not a bad read, though. One last weird thing, though. The book has twelve chapters... one for each song on the first US album release. Every single other release of the album either has eleven (the European and Asian releases) or thirteen (every US pressing after the first) tracks, so the choice of twelve seems uninspired to me. (The first US version added "Elephant Stone", later versions also added the "Fools Gold" single.)

The book: C+
The album: A

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