The new collection of David Ensminger's interviews, entitled Mavericks of Sound: Conversations with the Artists Who Shaped Indie and Roots Music (out now from Rowman & Littlefield), is a mixed blessing. The insight one gets from the artists with whom he speaks is deep and interesting. It's rare that artists such as Jason Ringenberg of Jason & the Scorchers, the Reverend Horton Heat, or the Nerves and Plimsouls' Peter Case get the sort of deeply-introspective and serious discussion presented here. To see Ensminger go beyond the superficial interviews most of these artists receive -- if they're ever spoken with at all -- is heartening. Mavericks of Sound is best when it allows these rarely-heard musicians to go beyond discussing their latest album, and dig deep into the influences which shaped them, and the particulars of their journey to now. That said: Ensminger can go on. When he does something like laying out a lengthy Woody Guthrie quote in his interview with Robert Earl Keen, you're not quite certain as to whether that's meant to elicit a certain response from his subject, or if it's simply meant to show the depth of Ensminger's own personal knowledge. Rarely does it seem that the author achieves much connection with the artist he's interviewing. Reading the short pieces toward the end of Mavericks of Sound reveals a certain terseness of response from some of his subjects. The final impression I had regarding David Ensminger's Mavericks of Sound is that the author is quote knowledgable, does impeccable research, and has excellent taste in music. That said, his interview style is such that he succeeds in achieving excellent results not so much because of his knowledge and research, but because he's such impeccable taste in subjects. These are people who could tell a good story to a dog on a porch.
Geek Rock: An Exploration of Music and Subculture, the new essay collection edited by Alex DiBlasi and Victoria Willis, succeeds on only one half of its title. It explores the geeky aspects of music, but as far as being a collection of essay about a rock subculture, it fails abjectly. The blurb on the book's back cover explains geek rock as "forms of popular music that celebrate all things campy, kitschy, and quirky," but the editors then present a procession of essays wherein the musical approach is geeky or the lyrical obsession is geeky -- it seems that the essay authors, despite the desire to make geek rock a thing and name-checking in the introduction artists like Weezer, Jonathan Coulton, and Frank Black, chose instead to reframe the discussion in a way that reflects their particular interests. Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart were outsiders, and true creative geniuses, but in framing the geekiness of their art as its level of obsession, the essay authors seem to be twisting and pushing the limits of what "geek rock" is, in an effort to lionize these already-lionized subjects. It's well-known that these artists were obsessive to the most minute detail, but how that's geeky, I can't quite grasp. DiBlasi makes a very interesting and salient point in his essay on Zappa, entitled "Frank Zappa: Godfather of Geek Rock." In its first paragraph, he posits geek rock as music that "celebrates the mundane" and that it's "rife with references to comic books, science fiction, and other cultural artifacts that are also considered geeky." This is an excellent summation of geek rock, and it fails on two levels: firstly, very few essays will make references to musicians who actually perform songs in this vein. The Mountain Goats, Magnetic Fields, and Frank Zappa certainly do not. Secondly -- and, arguably, most importantly -- DiBlasi gives several examples of what this is in opposition to. He names the Who and the Rolling Stones, to which I can agree with his idea of them being hypermasculine and sexual. However, when you say that Led Zeppelin is an act to which geek rock is the opposite, I cannot believe you. Maybe on the sexuality front, but Robert Plant sang more about Tolkien-related subjects than Jimmy Page stole rigffs from old blues men. There's a reason why Dungeons and Dragons fans also frequently have ZOSO tattoos. All of this is within the first few pages of Geek Rock. It's difficult to even begin to point out the positives in the book. "Man [Seeking] Astro-Man?: Nouveau Surf Rock and Futuristic-Past Nostalgic" by Shannon Finck is my personal favorite, relating a kitsch obsession to sci-fi geekery in a wonderfully tight and on-point essau. However, even in the most straightforwardly geeky chapter of all, "'Now It's Time For a Little Braggadocio: Nerdcore Rap, Race, and the Politics of Appropriation," by Chris Russell, the topic of racial appropriation is well-addressed, but one wonders how the chapter might have fared otherwise with the addition of someone like MegaRan, an African-American nerdcore rapper, and what he brings to the table. It's all so much wasted potential -- a fucking shame, really, as these are all interesting approaches to the artists considered, but shoehorning this "geek rock" appelation on to them just makes for an awkward and frsutrating read. If you consider it as a selection about musical obsessives, you'll fare much better. geek Rock is out now from Rowman and Littlefield.