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Some Good Pieces, But Not What It Pretends To Be
on October 26, 2010
I am a big fan of reading music criticism, so I was excited to hear the opinions of these (mostly) esteemed writers on a quirky topic: If you were marooned on a deserted island and able to bring one album, which would you bring? Unfortunately, only a scant few writers actually address this question. Rather, it seems to me, they just sent the editor, Greil Marcus, some piece they seemed to have lying around that focused on a favorite album or artist. In the majority of pieces, the author never even acknowledges the question. The pieces just serve as vehicles to rant about some personally loved record. How else could you explain the essays on Huey "Piano" Smith (really fun music, but hardly something you could listen to repeatedly - even if you love this type of New Orleans frolicking rock), Desperado by the Eagles (I think it's common knowledge just how hokey this album is), The Pretender by Jackson Browne (another Southern California wanker album), or Little Willie John (a flash in the pan burned out by age 19)?
Apart from not being what it purports to be, the collection contains some good pieces - and several bad ones. I love the piece by Lester Bangs on Astral Weeks by Van Morrison. It is very personal and insightful. The piece on Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica makes you actually want to listen to the off-putting album more closely (plus the piece is one of the few that justifies just why this album should be brought to the island). The piece by Nick Tosches is well written and fun to read. The piece on Beggar's Banquet by the Rolling Stones is excellent (and addresses the core question) and, interestingly enough, goes on to explain why the author does not particularly like the Stones but how they convey some critical essences of rock on this album. On the bad side, the essay on The Velvet Underground, one of my favorite bands, misses the mark. I mean, how can you seriously compare the Velvets to the Who, the inventors of the rock opera? The piece by Robert Christeau on the New York Dolls, a band I find to be hugely overrated, also misses. He starts off promisingly enough by addressing the reasons why people usually dismiss the Dolls, for example the oft-stated, "I guess you had to be there", and then more or less tells you how great the Dolls were because he was there to see them. *sigh* (By the way, when you bring the album to the island, you don't get to bring the band - so you don't get the stage show, which seems to be the majority of the reason why Robert likes the Dolls.) The longest piece by far is on Linda Ronstadt. LINDA RONSTADT!!! Are you sensing the disproportionate emphasis on Southern California soft rock?
The last egregious transgression is by Greil Marcus, the editor, who felt the need to add in the appendix a listing of a few hundred albums that could/should be picked for a desert island disk. What's the point of this inferred pantheon of rock records? I thought the essence of the idea was to pick only ONE! Just because the authors didn't provide a panoply of the prestigious doesn't mean you should provide "Greil's Guide to the Best Records of All Time".
I was interested in reading Marooned, the follow-up, but I am a bit chary since it just seems like they wanted to include music past 1979 and maybe get the perspectives from authors who are not middle-aged, strait, and white. I am a huge My Bloody Valentine fan, so maybe I'll buy it just for that piece. But at the very least, that book seems more variegated (it even includes some JAZZ records - which makes a lot of sense to me - now I am still wondering why no one even thinks to talk about the merits of Beethoven's 9th symphony or some works by Bach).