Though it's been out for the past month or so, I'd highly recommend that you race to your nearest newstand to grab the recent music issue of The Believer, which is still on the newstands this week (or so we've been told) but on the verge of vanishing.
There are a number of sublime highlights in the magazine’s fifth annual music issue. Gems like Davy Rothbart’s ode to street-purchased rap CDs, and Douglas Wolk’s typically smart and well-crafted essay about a mysterious Huey “Piano” Smith CD that the writer seems to have willed into existence. There’s Rick Moody’s argument in defense of 70s prog rock band Gentle Giant, and Andy Beta’s funny charticle tracing his search through Thailand and Laos for molem, an indigenous music of the region, only to discover Laotions grooving to Bob Marley’s Legend and, inexplicably, Cake’s Fashion Nugget . It’s writing that, at its best, massages the mysterious sweet spot in our brains where rhythmic joy and linguistic wonder spin together.
It’s an interesting time for music writing, which seems to be in the midst of a grand identity crisis. Where once there were a few gatekeepers and tastemakers recommending music, now there are many, and it’s hard to know who to trust – who knows what they’re talking about; who can put the music in a context; who can guide listeners toward joy. Readers who once relied on magazines have found that they can discover music without hitting a newsstand. The print medium’s recognizable voices of years past – be it Robert Christgau, Greil Marcus, Chuck Klosterman — have been eclipsed by a billion bloggers with a billion opinions — and free MP3s of the music they’re discussing. New channels of discovery, whether the iLike playlists of a music-obsessed friend’s Facebook page, or Amazon’s “Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought …” model, or Pandora and Last.FM’s logarithms that “recommend” similar artists, have challenged the music writers’ (and record store clerks’ and DJs’) hegemony over music geekdom.
The Believer ’s music issue removes itself completely from that struggle, and perusing its pages feels like a relief. Seeking not to keep up with trends or chime in on whether Vampire Weekend sucks or not, the annual offering has a simple goal: to publish ideas about many different kinds of music. Unlike the mass market glossies that seek to cover what’s happening in the here and now, The Believer ’s music issues ignore the present in favor of the a more all-consuming aesthetic. Past installments have included histories of synthetic larynges (fake voice boxes); an appreciation of L.A. songstress Dory Previn; a conversation between Aimee Mann and the comedian Patton Oswalt; and Hua Hsu’s spine-tingling essay on Billy Joel, the Scorpions and Jesus Jones called “Three Songs from the End of History.”
In fact, only a few pieces in this year’s issue address music of the 21st century at all, the best of which, Brendan Stusoy’s welcome and informative history of black metal, “A Blaze in the North American Sky,” accomplishes the twin challenge of presenting information and creating a narrative to accompany it. So does the fantastic “Bite Me: A Brief History of Dentistry and Music.” In it, Believer mainstay Paul Collins examines, in his words, “the auditory capacities of teeth.” He begins in 1798 with Ludwig Van Beethoven, who, facing hearing loss, “listens to his compositions by jamming a wooden rod between his teeth and resting the opposite end on his piano’s soundboard.” Thus begins a history of bone conduction. By the 1870s a device called the “vulcanized rubber fan” aided the deaf, followed by “phonographic biteguard attachments,” then “Bone Phones,” and currently, Hasbro’s “Tooth Tunes” toothbrushes, which play songs in your mouth while you brusha brusha brusha.
As always, the magazine features quality interviews, this year talking to Irma Thomas about her experience in New Orleans during and in the wake of Hurricane Katrina; guitarist Alan Bishop on his music label Sublime Frequencies; and, best, Ian MacKaye, in which “the founder of Dischord Records, Minor Threat and Fugazi is trying to disengage music from the domain of drunken adults.” MacKaye’s point? That music has been so coopted by the alcohol industry that the two are absolutely intertwined. Explains MacKaye: “[V]irtually all music, except the super high-end music like opera, is essentially available only in bars. If there’s music, there’s booze.” Music, he says, suffers as a result, since “new ideas are hard to present in ventures where profit is the primary motive.” The reason that clubs offer bands and not televised sports is because it’s what draws the crowds, he explains, and innovation takes a backseat to filling the bar stools. It’s a compelling argument; and evidence to support his point can be found at downtown L.A. club The Smell, which doesn’t sell booze and only charges a $5 cover – and is the current harbinger of shockingly great new musical ideas. “Music is no joke,” concludes MacKaye, “and the fact that it has been perverted by these various industries is very discouraging to me.”
It’s this kind of stuff that, while available online (it’s not like it’s too hard finding MacKaye opining there, too), seems to mean more when it’s written on the page, residing amidst essays on Gil Scott Heron (by the always insightful Steve Almond) and obscure Chicago band Souled American.
Hold the magazine in your hands, sit on the couch and peruse it while listening to the accompanying CD, which I consider one of the best releases of the year. It’s a collection that moves from indigenous music from the nomads of the Sahara, to Googoosh, “the Queen of Persian Pop,” to L.A. genius Madlib (in his Beat Konducta guise), to Brooklyn quartet Gang Gang Dance, to new Jamaican dancehall, to L.A. miniaturist Lucky Dragons. Read the notes on the songs, written by Ross Simonini (who compiled the disc), and understand the context from which these sublime frequencies sprang. Flip the pages, reread passages, no scrolling or double-clicking required. It feels real, akin to checking out someone’s vinyl collection instead of zipping through iPod files. Livinia Greenlaw writes about that sensation, in fact, in one of the highlights of the issue, “Waiting and Listening.”
“The first thing we did when entering a friend’s room was go through their record collection,” she recalls. “It was how you presented yourself and how you were judged. Like a profile on a networking site, your record collection advertised your personality, style, passions, hopes, and dreams. Only it wasn’t hidden away on a computer. It took up space.”