Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Steve Taylor's "The A-to-X of Alternative Music": Book Review

Take the letter "K": Kenickie, Killing Joke, Kraftwerk, Ed Kuepper, Fela Kuti. That exemplifies the range of this thoughtful essay collection. (It goes up to "Z.") Steve Taylor's criteria for inclusion are three: "Working It"--not letting "self-conscious arty behaviour," commercialism or "cultural bandwagon hopping" get in the way of creative fidelity to one's muse; "It"= overcoming verbal and musical limits, either by sticking to a deft aesthetic that works for the artist (Sonic Youth) or upending expectations album by album (The Fall); Consistency-- it speaks to the original audience, yet it attracts new listeners over a career determined by the band or musician's control over image, presentation, and commodification.

I liked Taylor's set-up. An introductory paragraph or two sums up not the usual name-birthdate-hometown-discography of many reference works, but a context and background that goes a bit beyond, into why the musician or band emerged at that time. Taylor emphasizes the way a discography and a presence lifted each musician or band out of the era, while defining it to a discerning audience. He ends each entry with a "first team," the best lineup of the group, and then a "place-time-scene" pinpointing where and how they emerged. Finally, what to hear first and then after guides a reader who wants to become a listener.

Some sudden shifts in style and content in entries, and a few typos or usage slips, trip up Taylor's insistent, often rambling or snarky prose. Also a d.j., you can imagine him slipping in such comments on air after he plays a track by so-and-so. As first of all a thoughtful, passionate, but sensible and discerning fan, his perspective here favors an impressionistic survey of each artist rather than a comprehensive one. Many key albums or songs are barely mentioned, but instead you may learn a fresh factoid or get a snippet from an interview or press release by the artist as compensation. It makes the approach uneven, but certainly personal.

Taylor strives for a blunt, no-nonsense evaluation. He may lurch about as suddenly as the contents, but what unites them, he explains in his introduction, is "bucking the trend of the moment." As a record-store habitue, he notes with members of Ride or R.E.M. (Michael Stipe has a four-paragraph preface musing about "alternative" as "an attitude and approach to what was clearly at that point a business" when his band began) or Tindersticks to name a few how a vision and attitude coalesced in the formative years of those who'd craft a new sound, combining past influences while blending them with their own fresh flavor.

That innovation spans Portishead to Primal Scream to Prince to Public Enemy, and the range of these idiosyncratic, even awkward, but heartfelt and principled essays refreshes. They range from the beats-turned-hippies to the mash-up manipulators on dancefloors today. Taylor does not exclude major-label signings or successful figures, and any "purity" that brings its own lack of popularity brings its own warning. Instead, from Dylan to DJ Shadow, Taylor seeks out the milieu that makes these determined musicians matter. (Amazon US 12-28-11)

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