Torch Ballads & Jukebox Music

July 31, 2013

Motown: The Musical vs. the Literary 5


Anyone who wants to know what made Motown great and what killed Motown should not go to Broadway. They should turn to books. The body of Motown Lit lays out a tragedy every bit as fascinating, maddening, and depressing as the tragedy of Detroit itself.

May 3, 2013

The Song I Could Not Stop Singing: On “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” 2


There came upon me, not rationally but massively, the conviction that if I continued to sing this song then my parents would die. And yet I could not stop singing it. There I would be, walking blithely through the house, or walking blithely across the garden, and then realize that for the last few seconds, I had, yet again, been singing of Maxwell Edison and his homicidal hammer, and a great dread would invade me, because it meant, this singing, the removal of my parents from the world.

February 13, 2013

The Kid Is Alright: On Teddy Wayne’s The Love Song of Jonny Valentine 1


Does it matter to us how culture is made? Won’t we swallow the cooked-up laboratory celebrity just as easily as the authentic talent?

January 10, 2013

Beautiful and Exciting and Profoundly Different: On Beck’s Song Reader 2


I have just channeled Beck’s spirit through printed paper! The first versions of Beck’s songs I hear are my own! This is an amazing feeling.

October 24, 2012

Frankly Singing 6


Two weeks ago, I told my father I’d been assigned to report Frank Sinatra, Jr.’s concert, told him I had a second press pass for a photographer. My father heard me loud and clear. He went out and bought a telescopic Nikon. It was at that point that dread began to gnaw on his daughter.

July 24, 2012

Chuck Berry, Neoclassicist 16


Blues, country and western, Johnsonian neoclassicism: these are the traditions that nurture Chuck Berry’s lyrical art. But really, who gives a damn about the categories when you’re listening to something as smoking as “Brown Eyed Handsome Man”?

April 6, 2012

Becoming James Brown: On RJ Smith’s The One 3


What Brown wanted to do was lay down a strutting, macho anthem marked by explosions of brass and a guitar that sounds like chrome wheels spinning. He hums a melody to the sax player and a bass line to the bassist. He thumps out a beat for the drummer. He watches a trumpet player struggle, fires him, then re-hires him moments later. And when the singer is ready, he screams out a set of lyrics scratched on a sheet of paper. The song is called “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag.”

February 2, 2012

Nevermind Nostalgia: Twenty Years After Nirvana 13


Hearing that Nirvana’s Nevermind was 20 years old was kind of like seeing an old drinking buddy turn to Jesus in his autumn years. I was happy for him and everything, but I missed the old days when we shared the fortress of solitude.

January 30, 2012

Find Myself A City To Live In: Ed Sanders’ Fug You & Will Hermes’ Love Goes To Buildings On Fire 0


Finding the entrance points to New York’s musical undergrounds has never been quite as simple as decoding MTA maps, though that’s usually the first step. Two excellent new books chart a decade-and-a-half worth of street-level detail, illuminating not only entrance points, but how they were willed into existence.

January 5, 2012

The Soundtrack of Our Books 16


Publishers and authors have begun to experiment more with audio as a natural step in the promotion of their books. But recent trends suggest that readers are looking for even more direct ways to incorporate music into the reading experience.