Tag Archives: Books Review

Rock N’ Read: Complicated Game Inside The Songs of XTC

‘I think it was the middle of 2000 when I was introduced to XTC via the band’s final swan song APPLE VENUS VOLUME 2 (WASP STAR). I remember being totally blown away by the band and eagerly devoured that album as well as the 1999 release APPLE VENUS VOLUME 1. I’ve always been a fan of lush, literate pop songs and that happens to be XTC’s specialty. I dove head first into XTC’s back catalogue and was surprised to learn that the band start out as a punk/New Wave outfit before slowly morphing into a Beatle-esque pop band. One of the reason the band never took off is because the band famously stopped touring due to lead singer/songwriter Andy Partridge’s stage fright. Partridge retreated from the spotlight after 2000 and the band only popped up on my radar occasionally when they released a smattering of demos and alternate takes of their previous output. The band remained a bit of a mystery to me, outside of their music for years, and other than one grizzled-looking CD Warehouse employee I never met anyone that seemed to be aware of them. I recently learned that Partridge has stepped back into the spotlight a bit via Twitter and writing for a few other artists (namely The Monkees whose new album I have previously reviewed).

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Writer Todd Bernhardt has spent the past decade interviewing Partridge on many of XTC’s greatest songs. Apparently, these interviews were posted on a now-defunct fan website. His book Complicated Game: Inside the Songs of XTC collects and expands upon these interviews. This sort of book, a back and forth conversation between a writer/reporter and an artist, is probably my favorite type of long-form music writing. I love hearing an artist talk at length about their work. I eagerly dove into the book, ready to finally get insight into some of my all-time favorite pop songs. And to that end, Complicated Game succeeds in spades. My only issue with the book is that it dives very deep into the mechanics of these songs. If you’re a musician and a can follow Bernhardt and Partridge’s conversation about chord changes and keyboard filters, then this book will be a treasure trove of information. If, however, you aren’t a musician and are a bit of a dunce like me you’re going to be a bit lost in a good chunk of the book. There are great behind the scenes tales and for the most part, Partridge answers all of Bernhardt’s questions with honesty and aplomb (no dodging here).

The best chapters focused on the band’s most famous song and one of their more obscure songs. I found the chapter on “Dear God” to be highly illuminating. “Dear God” has fascinated me for many reasons and I was very interested in learning about the song’s development and the how and why it was initially left off of the band’s album SKYLARKING (and how it got added back once the song took off and became XTC’s biggest hit). The reasons behind its omission aren’t quite what I was expecting and its addition to the tightly structured concept album SKYLARKING is less problematic than I’d always considered. The chapter on one of XTC’s side project The Dukes of Stratosphere songs was also very intriguing. I’d always wanted to know how the psychedelic alter-ego band came about and how this project’s songs were crafted. Those two chapters made Complicated Game worth every penny for me. The insight provided into the band’s other songs were interesting as well, though there were a few songs not covered that I’d have liked to have read about. The book also spends quite a bit of time discussing Swindon, the English town where Partridge lives and wrote about extensively in many of XTC’s songs. I’d always pictured a Kinks-esque VILLAGE GREEN type hamlet but Complicated Game paints a more realistic version. I was a bit disappointed that the band’s bassist, Colin Moulding, didn’t get as many props from Partridge as I’d have thought. Sure, Andy was generous on more than a few occasions when discussing Moulding’s bass parts…but he didn’t gush the way I’d have thought. I know the two had a bit of a falling out, but this still struck me as odd. Perhaps I’m a bit too sensitive when it comes to Moulding, whom I have always felt was an overlooked genius.

I’d recommend this book to only the hardest of hardcore XTC/Andy Partridge fans. I think that if you’re a huge fan hungering for more information on the band and their creative process, you should check this book out right away. If you’re a casual fan or someone unwilling to sift through some serious technical music-talk, then you should proceed with caution. Andy Partridge is a humble genius and much of the discussion found in Complicated Game will go over your head (it went over mine). There are a few songs/chapters where Andy’s recollections are a bit on the sparse side, but even when the songwriter can’t recall every single detail he’s able to provide a lot of insightful analysis of the song. Lastly, I very much doubt that Mr. Partridge will happen upon this review, but if he does (or if Mr. Bernhardt sees this) I’d very much like to convey to him how happy I would be if he were put out brand-new music. Demos and fuzzy warbles are fun, but nothing beats fully-finished tunes. The song he penned for the latest Monkees album was a slice of brilliance the world needs more of these days.

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ROCK N’ READ: The Rap Year Book

Earlier this summer I was in Barnes & Noble, haunting the Arts & Entertainment section. I was looking for a good book to read on the history of punk music, what I found instead was a really good primer for rap music. Shea Serrano, a former columnist on the now-defunct Grantland website, has crafted a nice introduction to the genre. Far from being definitive, The Rap Year Book: The Most Important Rap Song From Every Year Since 1979, Discussed, Debated, and Deconstructed provides a nice introduction to a rap novice (such as myself). Like the rather lengthy title suggests, the book is broken up into chapters by year starting in 1979 and ending in 2014, each chapter focuses on the most important song of said year. Serrano opens each chapter simply with a “What This Song Is About” and “Why It’s Important” section before proceeding to wax philosophically about the merits of that years song. This longer, essay portion of each chapter is followed up with a colorful infographic or illustration that ties somehow into the subject matter of the song featured. These are all really amusing, though I didn’t get to enjoy them as fully as I’d would have liked because I bought the Kindle version of the book and most of them didn’t display properly on my iPad.

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The Rap Year Book chronicles the maturation of the the genre and illustrates not only the massive creative talent behind the music, but also maps out the various genres and sub-genres that contributed to the birth of rap. Despite being a thoughtful, articulate explanation of why each song is most important song of a particular year, this book is divisive as hell. Anytime one tries to pick “the best of the year” in any subject, there’s going to be some hard choices made. Refreshingly, at the end of every chapter there is a “Rebuttal” section where another writer gives a brief explanation of why an entirely different song from that year is actually the best song. Some of these short mini-essays could have been fleshed out themselves into interesting chapters. I found this to be a ballsy move on Serrano’s part and helps to illustrate just how the author doesn’t 100% fully believe that his picks are the only correct picks for song of the year.

In case your’e wondering, here are Serrano’s picks/chapters of the book:

1979 “Rapper’s Delight” The Sugarhill Gang

1980 “The Breaks” Kurtis Blow

1981 “Jazzy Sensation” Afrika Bambaataa and the Jazzy Five

1982 “The Message” Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five

1983 “Sucker M.C.’s” Run-DMC

1984 “Friends” Whodini

1985 “La Di Da Di” Doug E. Fresh and Slick Rick

1986 “6 in the Mornin’” Ice-T

1987 “Paid in Full” Eric B. and Rakim

1988 “Straight Outta Compton” N.W.A

1989 “Fight the Power” Public Enemy

1990 “Bonita Applebum” A Tribe Called Quest

1991 “Mind Playing Tricks on Me” Geto Boys

1992 “Nuthin’ but a ‘G’ Thang” Dr. Dre, featuring Snoop Dogg

1993 “C.R.E.A.M.” Wu-Tang Clan

1994 “Juicy” The Notorious B.I.G.

1995 “Dear Mama” Tupac

1996 “California Love” Tupac, featuring Dr. Dre and Roger Troutman

1997 “Can’t Nobody Hold Me Down” Puff Daddy, featuring Mase

1998 “Ruff Ryders’ Anthem” DMX

1999 “My Name Is” Eminem

2000 “Big Pimpin’” Jay Z, featuring UGK

2001 “Takeover” vs. “Ether” Jay Z vs. Nas

2002 “Grindin’” The Clipse

2003 “In Da Club” 50 Cent

2004 “Still Tippin’” Mike Jones, featuring Slim Thug and Paul Wall

2005 “Gold Digger” Kanye West, featuring Jamie Foxx

2006 “Hustlin’” Rick Ross

2007 “International Players Anthem” UGK, featuring Outkast

2008 “A Milli” Lil Wayne

2009 “Best I Ever Had” Drake

2010 “Monster” Kanye West, featuring Rick Ross, Jay Z, Bon Iver, and Nicki Minaj

2011 “Niggas in Paris” Jay Z and Kanye West

2012 “Same Love” Macklemore and Ryan Lewis

2013 “Control” Big Sean, featuring Kendrick Lamar and Jay Electronica

2014 “Lifestyle” Rich Gang, featuring Young Thug and Rich Homie Quan

 Obviously the first chapter, 1979’s “Rapper’s Delight” by The Sugarhill Gang, is an important chapter because it kicks off both the book and the genre itself. Other standout chapters (in my humble opinion) are 1989’s “Fight the Power,” 1990’s “Bonita Applebum” (cited here as the “first true rap love song”), and 2006’s “Hustlin.” I really enjoyed the chapter on Rick Ross’ “Hustlin” because I liked finding out what a complete and utter bullshit artist Ross is. The evolution of rap songwriting from brutally autobiographical to the fanciful bullshit stylings of Rick Ross is a fascinating transformation. I also really appreciate how well-represented Kanye West during the 00’s.

There’s a Spotify playlist available that features the songs mentioned in the book and it’s just as essential. Overall, I think the careful thought and intelligent analysis of The Rap Year Book make this a must-read for anyone even remotely interested it the both rap music and modern black art. Even if you don’t agree with all of the choices for song of the year, there is so much good analysis of lyrics, artist backstory, historical context, and in-depth interpretation this is one year book you’ll actually want to revisit.

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Rock ‘n Read: Catch A Wave

I’ve been interested in Brian Wilson every since I snagged a copy of PET SOUNDS from my uncle in Tennessee about 10 years ago.  I’d always been of the mind that The Beach Boys were the lame-American answer to The Beatles.  And while 90% of the Beach Boys music is cringe-worthy and almost embarrassingly bad at times…there was a period in the early 1960s when Brian Wilson was the greatest songwriter on Earth.

PET SOUNDS is one of my all-time favorite records, and it’s always on my iPod.  That record speaks to me in so many ways and on so many different levels.  The next Beach Boys album after PET SOUNDS was going to be even better.  It was going to be stupendous and change rock music forever.  And then–?–something happened and he became a complete nutcase.

What happened after PET SOUNDS became the stuff of legend, however, but not the way Brian Wilson, or anyone for that matter, would have wanted. Rather than recording a masterpiece he lost his shit and the entire album was shelved after being hyped by the record label for over a year.  That mythic, lost album was SMILE.  The Beach Boys next album would ultimately be SMILEY-SMILE, a watered-down version of what many claimed was the Holy Grail of ’60s rock.

Drugs, psychosis, greed, selling-out, and not measuring up to one’s potential.  Did I leave anything out? The story of Brian Wilson has always fascinated me.  So I picked up Peter Ames Carlin’s book CATCH A WAVE: THE RISE, FALL, & REDEMPTION OF THE BEACH BOYS’ BRIAN WILSON even though I’d just read a book last year covering The Beach Boys.  I didn’t really learn anything new, other than a few nasty tidbits about Brian’s cruel father Murray (this book alleges that Murray’s abuse cost young Brian his hearing which is not the story I heard in the other book I read last year).

CATCH A WAVE goes in chronological order and paints a pretty good portrait of Brian Wilson’s early life and initial success.  The book gets a little boring when it’s subject loses his mind and stops working.  You would think that writing about a rock ‘n roll lunatic would be an instant grandslam–but reading about a guy getting fat and growing a beard ain’t all that interesting.  For that reason the middle of the book becomes less about Brian and more about The Beach Boys artistic and commercial success-post Brian (or rather, the lack of that success).  I guess the author had no choice but to reduce Brian’s presence in the book near the middle when Brian reduced his presence from reality.  I do wish the author would have talked a bit more about the Brian’s shelving of SMILE, specifically his belief that his song “Fire” was causing fires to break out across LA.  I also would have like for him to go into more detail about the Brian Wilson/Charles Manson connection.

The book, which is fairly recent, covers the re-recording of SMILE Wilson did a few years ago.  The author raised a few good points about whether this new SMILE should have been released at all, and what (if anything) this recording of SMILE might have done to the “legend” of SMILE.  I found that last part of the book to be really interesting and thought-provoking. As a metaphor, the album’s release totally kills SMILE.  That bummed me out.  I’m ashamed to say that it bummed me out more than reading about Brian’s abuse as a child or even the decades he wasted sitting around the house doing nothing.

Overall, I would recommend you read this book if you are interested in reading about Brian Wilson or if you don’t feel like you hate Mike Love enough.  Seriously, that guy comes off as a total asshole.  My favorite part was when he was bad-mouthing PET SOUNDS when Brian was trying to get the band to record it…only to back peddle years later and claim the entire thing was his idea, Mike Love comes off as Rock’s biggest asshole.  And you thought you had bad cousins.

CATCH A WAVE gets 3 out of 5 kicks of Mike Love’s balls. 

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