05 February 2008

Book review: Loveless (331/3)

My Bloody Valentine's Loveless is one of rock's most frustratingly elusive records. The more one learns about it: the creative inspirations, the engineering processes, the lyrics, the secrets; the less, paradoxically, one understands it. This is largely because the biggest secret one might discover about it is that there really are no secrets. Unlike, say, the backward noises on "Tomorrow Never Knows" or the snare sounds on Low, the band employed few if any radical recording or mixing techniques. The guitar tracks, for the most part, don't really have any effects on them. There aren't even that many layers. The inscrutably complex whole is comprised of remarkably simple parts. Which makes it that much more intriguing.

So from that standpoint, there's not much for Mike McGonigal to reveal in his entry in the 331/3 series. There are a few interesting tidbits, like the bit about guitarist Kevin Shields playing a guitar through two amps at once with independent tremolo effects running at slightly different rates with their speakers facing each other with a single mic in between. Cool. But most of the technical details (the tremolo effects are almost all done by hand; the drum tracks are mostly programmed from samples because drummer Colm O'Ciosoig was too sick to play; there's a lot of vocal tracks) are old news. If you've read anything else about Loveless, you know all this stuff.

So McGonigal goes for something of a grab-bag of 331/3 styles. He begins with a bit of personal history (thankfully not dwelling on his briefly-mentioned youthful drug habit; yawn), throws in a bit of track-by-track commentary, then settles into a comprehensive making-of history assembled with the help of a bunch of new interviews with the principal players. It's this last element, the meat of the book, that make it worthwhile.

The recording of Loveless really was quite an ordeal. The band bounced from cheap studio to cheaper studio as their label's budget allowed putting in a few days at a time before moving on again. This meant a never-ending series of arguments with in-house engineers who just didn't get it, many of whom, claims Shields, were excluded from their own studios, strictly ordered not to do anything, and received a credit in the liner notes for their troubles. Details like this make it worth it.

The book itself, from what I've heard, went through a birthing nearly as arduous as that of Loveless itself. Apparently Shields agreed to the interviews, spoke quite openly, then changed his mind and refused to sign off on any quotes in the book. That's what I was told by a notoriously unreliable source, anyway. I guess he came around eventually, though, because the book's full of Shields speaking quite freely about what really happened and who's full of shit.

Still, the back story explains the somewhat haphazard narrative toward the books end, where the text is interrupted by asides along the lines of "When Kevin read the first draft, he said..." or "My editor asks me to change...". McGonigal was apparently asked to tack on a sort of epilogue to the story, and he chooses to describe another album by some other artist who was apparently a big My Bloody Valentine fan. Relevant? Not really. Interesting? Sure. At the very least it makes me want to hear this guy's album, and for me that's the universal measuring stick for any book about music: if it makes me excited to hear something new, thumbs up.

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