"Every critic thinks about writing about their favorite album," says J. Niimi. "And when I heard that someone was actually putting out a series of books like that, a lightbulb went off over my head."
"Absolutely," adds Franklin Bruno, a fellow first-time author. "It'd always been a bee in my bonnet to pitch something like that."
Bruno and Niimi both have entries in Continuum Books' 33 1/3 series, each volume of which is devoted to a short but obsessive treatment of a much-loved album, from James Brown's Live at the Apollo to Neutral Milk Hotel's In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. They'll appear together next Saturday at Quimby's, where Bruno will read from his book on Elvis Costello's Armed Forces and Niimi will read from his on R.E.M.'s Murmur. The two have known each other since 1994, when one of Niimi's bands toured through Pomona and played with Bruno's group Nothing Painted Blue.
Niimi, who started freelancing as a music writer around the same time he entered the master's program in liberal arts at the University of Chicago in 2002, is a former recording engineer who played drums and guitar in Aden, Holiday, the John Huss Moderate Combo, and Ashtray Boy, a group fronted by Randall Lee of the Cannanes. He now writes for the Reader and Spin, among other outlets, and cohosts a weekly rock show on WHPK called Radio Zero. Bruno began writing professionally not long after starting the PhD program in philosophy at UCLA in 1994, and these days his work appears in places like the Village Voice and Salon. He got his doctorate in 2003 and this fall accepted a yearlong position as a visiting assistant professor at Northwestern. Taste the Flavor, likely the final album from Nothing Painted Blue, comes out later this month on Shrimper.
Both men landed book deals with Continuum in early 2004 by pitching the New York-based editor of the 33 1/3 series, David Barker, and almost immediately both realized how difficult it'd be to write about the subjects they'd chosen. "There were like 25 books written about R.E.M., including another book exclusively about Murmur," says Niimi. "So I went and bought all the books and read them, and that gave me an idea of what not to do."
Bruno likewise didn't want his project to take the course that most of the dozen or so books about Costello already have, devolving into a tawdry soap opera about the singer's personal life. "That wasn't really the point for me," says Bruno. "I'd had a--I won't say love-hate relationship--but I'd had a long-standing relationship with his music. And so I wanted to approach it from that perspective.
"Immediately the first thing that several people said to me was, 'Well, Armed Forces is not his best record,'" Bruno continues. "But it is a record that sort of explains a lot--it's rich in a certain way because of a lot of stuff that happened around the same time."
One thing that happened was the now infamous hotel-bar incident in Columbus, Ohio. On tour behind the album in 1979, a drunken Costello traded insults with singer Bonnie Bramlett and members of Stephen Stills's road crew and tried to provoke them by calling Ray Charles a "blind ignorant nigger." The resulting furor nearly aborted his career. "I think there are some themes about power and politics that are in the record, and a certain way of approaching them by being blatant or offensive, or using 'charged language' as Costello puts it," says Bruno. "That stuff jumped off of the record and into real life."
Bruno's book is organized into alphabetized encyclopedia-style entries ("Nick Lowe," "fascism," "Accidents Will Happen"), and his work benefits from a distanced, analytical style. He draws on the complete transcript of Greil Marcus's landmark 1982 Rolling Stone interview with Costello--not just the parts that were printed--and dissects Costello's own liner notes to the various reissues of Armed Forces. He also turns an almost microscopic eye on the nuts and bolts of the album's music and lyrics: he describes the tune "Busy Bodies," for instance, by noting that "the arpeggiated guitar/bass riff is derived from 'Oh, Pretty Woman,' altered but recognizable; the word choice recalls 'Nowhere Man,' though the vocal arrangement is closer to, say, 'Paperback Writer.'"
Niimi's book is far more introspective, focusing on his own evolving relationship with R.E.M.'s 1983 debut album. "I don't think there was a way I could've written the book without kinda writing myself into it," says Niimi. "As my approach got more theoretical and abstract, it also got more personal." He absorbed some of his earliest ideas about the nature of art and language while struggling to make sense of Murmur in his teens, he says, but didn't realize it until he returned to the record with an academically trained mind.
While Bruno's prose is as sharply detailed as Costello's songs, Niimi's style similarly evokes the notoriously cryptic and poetic lyrics Michael Stipe wrote for Murmur. "I deliberately didn't want to dismantle the record or take too clinical an approach," says Niimi. "Ultimately, it's a record about mystery, and I wanted to preserve some of that in the way I wrote." He makes a case for Murmur as a dissident artifact of southern Gothic culture, located in the "dark chasm . . . between nature and reason," and invokes Walker Percy's essay "Metaphor as Mistake," which Stipe once suggested was the key to understanding his lyrics--many of which were collaged together arbitrarily from fragments or made up on the spot. Niimi also gets as close as anyone ever has to nailing down just what Stipe is singing on the record, referring to live and early demo performances and to handwritten lyric sheets Stipe left behind in the studio--but he stops short of proposing a definitive meaning for lines like "Keep me out of country in the word / Disappointers into us absurd."
Niimi interviewed Mitch Easter and Don Dixon, who produced the record, and they add an evocative layer of detail to his discussion. The sharp percussive sounds on "Moral Kiosk," for example, were made by slapping together two pieces of oak flooring left over from the construction of the studio; what sounds like a thunderous explosion on "We Walk" is a slowed-down, reverbed recording of band members playing pool, picked up during overdubs by an errant microphone in the next room. "Since I worked as a studio engineer for a long time, I brought that to bear," Niimi says. "Because on one level that's how I listen to all music."
Though reviews for both books have been largely positive, both Niimi and Bruno are still hoping to hear directly from their subjects.
"It's weird to have written about a band that's as tied into rock critics and criticism as R.E.M.," says Niimi. "Particularly Peter Buck--who, if he weren't playing music, I think would be a music critic himself, and a good one."
"We chose really tough guys to write about--they're very much critically oriented rock stars," says Bruno, laughing. "Funny that a couple of musicians-slash-rock critics like us would be interested in those kinds of guys, huh?"
Franklin Bruno, J. Niimi
When: Sat 11/19, 7 PM
Where: Quimby's, 1854 W. North
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.