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Book Review: Nic Harcourt’s Music Lust

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According to the press release for his book, Music Lust,

“After listening to just one radio show from Nic Harcourt – Music Director at LA’s KCRW and host of “Morning Becomes Eclectic” – you’ll not only have discovered new music, you’ll be introduced to an artist or album that you may have missed in years past. Harcourt is arguably the most savvy tastemaker to grace the airwaves these days.

Ever read High Fidelity or seen the film? Remember how the guys in the music store would sit around and endlessly count angels on the heads of turntable needles? You know – “name your all time top five side one, track ones.” “Name your top five country songs about death.” Now Nic Harcourt has now made a book out of his particular lists. From what I’ve heard of him and his output, Harcourt has good (if quirky) taste in music, so this an interesting notion.

The idea for Music Lust comes from an idea by a Seattle librarian named Nancy Pearl, who wrote a book called Book Lust, a set of recommended-reading lists that updates a venerable library tradition of culling the good stuff according to a given librarian’s quirks and considered opinions. Pearl made a splash recently in the library field with that book and with the accompanying “shushing librarian” doll modeled after herself. The title Book Lust is itself a pun on the American Library Association’s trade publication Book List, which reviews new and forthcoming volumes of interest to all sorts of libraries, both of which have in turn inspired a much snarkier version of Book Lust in the online magazine Bookslut.

It is from this ongoing dialogue of belletrists and literary enthusiasts that Harcourt drew his inspiration, even borrowing his subtitle nearly intact from Pearl’s volume: “Recommended Listening for Every Mood, Moment and Reason.”

The trouble is, the longer one spends with Music Lust, the less likely it appears that Harcourt grasps the true spirit of the tradition he is engaging, and the more likely it appears that he has instead produced a well-meaning but shallow quickie that does little to help the noble cause of introducing good music to good people.

It’s not that Music Lust is a bad book. In fact, to be actually bad, Harcourt would have had to have failed much more spectacularly. For example, Martha Bayles’ 1996 Hole in Our Soul: The Loss of Beauty and Meaning in American Popular Music is a bad book. Exhaustively researched and carefully argued, Bayles nonetheless manages to misconstrue nearly every single salient point about the development of American pop music in the 20th century, ultimately coming to the conclusion that but for African-American musicians, American pop traditions would have long ago become brutal, spiky creations of the dry European intellectual pitfalls of modernism and postmodernism. I mean yeah, I guess, but… no. That’s a bad book. Music Lust, which aspires to nothing so lofty, is instead well meaning but superficial and fundamentally confused.

A number of years ago, a good friend of mine who chose to forego college in favor of the thousands of books he was already reading, gave me a gift. It was a sheaf of closely typed pages containing what he felt were the best and most important books he had read – ones that he thought everybody should read – along with brief and penetrating paragraphs about who each author was, how they had touched him, and why we should read them. It was all there from Paul Auster to Emile Zola, a pearl of great price bestowed upon me by a good friend who felt he had something important to share with the people in his life. I read from that list for years and discovered some authors (Bukowski and Chandler in particular) who changed my life.

Music Lust aspires to be something like that but on a grander scale; a best-friend list for the whole wide world. Organized alphabetically, the book contains short essay-lists on subjects like “Headbangers Ball” and “Jazz Vocalists: The Ladies,” intended to serve as letters of introduction for uninitiated listeners searching for a point of entry into new and intimidating territory.

Unfortunately, there are some problems. Let’s begin with the way the book is organized. Although the book’s alphabetical structure makes good sense when you look for entries like “Icon: Neil Young” and “Icon: Frank Zappa” toward the end, it makes less sense when “Happy Trails: Cowboy Singers” shows up under “H” and “Livin’ Large: The Big Band Boom!” appears under “L.” While I suppose the argument could be made that the book is organized like this to encourage accidental encounters, the argument could also be made that such a scheme means that to find anything dependably in this slender and alphabetical volume, one must consult the index.

Some of the lists themselves also raise the question: “why?”. For example, “The Call of Wales,” a review of Welsh singers (filed under “C”), includes four entries total: Tom Jones, Shirley Bassey, Jem, and Charlotte Church. Of those, Jones and Bassey are legitimate classics. Everybody should know who they are. Jem is a relatively unknown new singer-songwriter for whose US success Harcourt is partly responsible; to each his own, and fair play. Charlotte Church… well, a few years ago she released an album of pretty schlock titled “Voice of an Angel.” Although it’s Harcourt’s book and therefore his perogative to do what he wants, this just feels like he’s padding out a slim list.

In a similar vein, much of the text accompanying each list is too brief and shallow to convey enough information to do the job Harcourt wants. For example, this is the description for Neil Young’s Zuma, one of Harcourt’s top-choice Young albums:

“This album finds Crazy Horse accompanying Neil as he hits his stride with a batch of songs that feel comfortably inhabited.”

While factually accurate, the same exact sentence could apply without a single change to Rust Never Sleeps, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, Ragged Glory, Sleeps With Angels and even the live Weld. Nothing there tells us why Zuma is special and more worth your time than Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, which does not appear on the list. A more apt description, placing the album in the context of Young’s career arc and giving the reader some clues as to how it will sound and feel might be

“This album finds Crazy Horse accompanying Neil as he digs into a batch of songs that seem in all their winsome noisy charm to be a defiant rebound from his recent beautiful bummers On The Beach and Tonight’s The Night.”

In general, Harcourt’s writing seems “surfacey” often enough as to make me wonder how much time he put into the project. There are dozens of excellent books out there to tell readers who John Coltrane was: why praise him with a vague and fluffy capsule bio only to recommend, of his entire output, A Love Supreme? Although Harcourt does mention that that record was Coltrane’s musical and spiritual rebirth after kicking heroin, that assertion lacks heft on its own. Three more sentences would probably have been enough to guide the interested listener through his early days with Miles (with recommendations, say Kind of Blue!), his early solo work (My Favorite Things!), and his struggle with smack, magnifying A Love Supreme within its glorious context for the cost of 100 extra words or so.

One difficulty any author of a book like this faces is resistance from the congnoscenti, e.g.; me. Harcourt is walking a thin line between promoting the Nick Harcourt Experience As Heard On KCRW and providing a broader overview, a Rough Guide to What’s Good as it were, and sometimes the tension shows.

Why, for example, does the Heavy Metal (“Headbangers Ball”) section contain mentions of Zeppelin, Sabbath, Maiden, Priest, and Metallica, but also AC/DC (who are NOT METAL)? That’s the entire list! Could the metal list not have included quick mentions of, oh, I dunno, Megadeth, Anthrax, Slayer or Sepultura, just to name four great examples of the diversity of the genre? Given that Harcourt’s Afrobeat list contains exactly four entries (Fela and Femi Kuti, Fela Kuti drummer Tony Allen, and Brooklyn’s Antibalas), I wonder if Harcourt did a little digging first or just phoned it in. If AC/DC can be metal, could not (for chrissakes) Afrobeat pioneer Hugh Masekela not have rated a sentence?

While I recognize that a book like this really can’t be all things to all people, that is the book’s explicit mission and principle, and it simply doesn’t deliver. Why leave Marty Robbins off a three-man list of essential “Cowboy Crooners” (Gene Autry, Tex Ritter, Roy Rogers)? Is Nick Drake really perfect nighttime driving music, or did Harcourt just watch that VW commercial a few too many times? Why a section on poets/lyricists that includes only Leonard Cohen, Patti Smith and Jim Carroll? That’s three… why not pad it out like Wales and throw in Jim Morrison, Laura Nyro, and… and… frickin’ Jewel?

In keeping with the High Fidelity spirit of the affair, here are my top five beefs with Harcourt’s editorial decisions:
5) When making a list of recommended music by bands with food names, is it too much to ask that Bread be left off the list entirely on general principles? At the very least, could we have avoided writing the phrase “take a bite out of Baby I’m-a Want You?” Also: “The Jam” is not a food name.
4) In a list of “Great First Albums,” does it really make sense to include Funkadelic’s shaky debut but leave off Elvis Costello’s My Aim Is True entirely? (And does it make sense to leave Elvis Costello out of the book altogether? Maybe coulda lumped him together with David Byrne, Dave Thomas, Howlin’ Pelle Almqvist and Kingsmen singer Jack Ely in a list called “Nervous!”)
3) Was the list “It’s Raining Cats and Dogs” strictly necessary? What do Josie and the Pussycats, Skinny Puppy, Cat Stevens and Cat Power have in common except the cute concept? Many of the lists are of this kind, lumping together bands named after chocolate, or with “twins” in them (The Breeders, Cocteau Twins, the Stones (“Glimmer Twins”)) in ways that are probably meant to be lighthearted and revelatory but come across as just pointlessly random.
2) Although hip-hop, disco, metal, Madchester, jazz organists, and Afro-beat each get their own lists (and punk, country and jazz get at least three lists each), there is no list for “funk.”
1) Finally… the index contains two entries for Tangerine Dream and none for James Brown.

Let’s dwell on that last one for just a moment. In a book which purports to offer music for “every mood, moment, and reason”… Tangerine Dream: 2, James “The Godfather” Brown: 0. Arty proto-techno collective without whom every boutique on Bleecker street would be without the incessant “BOOMchkBOOMchkBOOM” of their acid-house sountrack: 2. Arguably the most important musician in all of pop music of the second half of the 20th century whose music is the very embodiment of joy, sexuality, and defiance: nada.

Anyway, that is all angels-on-heads-of-pins stuff that every music lover will go through when reading Music Lust. I’m sure ten different critics would have ten different beefs. Safe to say I think the book is often lacking; I will move on.

Ultimately this collection of all of Nic Harcourt’s recommendations of what to listen to any time – both those picks which are clearly close to his heart and the ones he had to research a bit – leaves the inescapable impression that just about any serious music writer could have written this book and done almost as good a job. The main selling point, the true attraction, is in Harcourt’s individual style as a DJ and a tastemaker. Harcourt seems to realize this and plays that part to the hilt.

But, this approach has its serious downside. To begin with, although Los Angeles is a very large place and KCRW reaches therefore a large radio audience, Harcourt is still only a recognized authority on “what’s good” to about 3.4% of the country. Therefore outside Los Angeles county, his opinions for the most part are exactly as good as the grizzled guy in hornrims and vintage Stooges shirt at your local record store. Also, Los Angeles as a place, as a cultural landscape, is not like anywhere else, and it’s not a sure bet that Harcourt’s Angeleno hipsterisms will play in Peoria.

The main drawback, however, is that to dig Nic Harcourt you have to dig his stock in trade, which is shiny and atmospheric downcast adult-oriented pop. I like such noises as much as the next guy (in fact much more than the next guy!), but a steady diet of Harcourt mainstays Badly Drawn Boy, Air, Zero 7, Starsailor, Jem, Coldplay, and a little Nick Drake for historical color quickly ends up feeling like an air-conditioned Swedish furniture showroom – everything of neat and curvy chrome, of plastic and blonde wood, and a little too cool for me.

In trying to be all things to all people Nic Harcourt has overreached his goal and produced a well-intentioned volume guaranteed to completely foil its own ambitions. As the personal and subjective “what I like” essay of one British DJ who lives in Los Angeles, Music Lust is beyond reproach. Who can say how useful that is to me and you, but fair enough. He’s a very good DJ and has a faultless ear for the kind of thing he does. But in trying to assemble a masterful list of everything that’s good in pop music for an entire country, an entire world, full of his best friends, Harcourt has managed to prove that he is, in fact, a very good DJ with a faultless ear for the kind of thing he does. It’s all subjective, of course, and my own subjective reaction is that although people sincerely looking to broaden their musical horizons could do worse than Music Lust, they could easily do better too.

And they could start with James Brown.

Full disclosure: I once worked for a company that put out a compilation of live performances from “Morning Becomes Eclectic,” and I once worked for Nic Harcourt’s boss’ daughter, though I was not involved with the project and never met Harcourt or his boss. Absolutely outstanding compilation, though.

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About John Owen

  • Marguertie van de Poll

    since reading Bukowski changed your life, I thought you might also be interested in the Bach-Bukowski project (concerts and cd) by Willem van Ekeren (Holland). Bach-Bukowski is an extraordinary mixture of singing and piano.
    Thirteen of the poems of Bukowski’s ˜The last night of the earth poems’are woven together with 13 parts of the Well-tempered Clavier’ of Bach.
    The lyrics are sung blues/jazz style in combination with authentic Bach music on the piano.

    On our website you can find more information and audiofragments. It is also possible to order the cd.

    Thought you might want to know!

  • John Owen

    That’s so crazy it just might work! Buk’s rhythms are simple and direct, and so are Bach’s. Hm… I’ll check that out. Thanks!