Music from Overseas (…literally)



Unless my memory’s failing me, the first time I heard Bedhead was in the summer of 1998. They were, at the time, a band I knew next to nothing about, save that their name kept cropping up as an influence on bands whose music I dug. I’m pretty sure that reading interviews with Pedro the Lion’s David Bazan, in which he cited Bedhead as an influence, played a prominent role in that — in ’98, I was listening to The Only Reason I Feel Secure a whole lot. Maybe obsessively.

Anyway. If memory serves, I was working a temp job in Little Silver for a couple of weeks, and I headed to Jack’s Music in Red Bank after work one day to see if they had anything from Bedhead in stock. Turns out they did: I went back home with Transaction de Novo, what turned out to be their final album, in tow. I followed the Kadane brothers’ musical output from there to The New Year, which preserved Bedhead’s restrained approach while adding in a slightly more cathartic element.

And now there’s Overseas, in which both Kadanes are joined by Bazan and Will Johnson. It’s the first music I’ve heard from them in a while, and my interest — piqued when I first heard of the group’s existence — was piqued. I’m a little bummed to hear that the Kadanes won’t be singing on this one — though I’m a fan of both Bazan’s voice and Johnson’s, I’d also love to hear how the voices of all four of the band’s members could play off one another.

Of the two songs they have posted, I’m a bit more drawn to “Down Below,” which — not shockingly — sounds a bit like David Bazan providing guest vocals on a The New Year song. I suspect I’ll end up ordering the album before long — the collected works of the band’s members inspires more than a little trust. And in writing this, I’ve had a reason to visit The New Year’s website, which alludes to “some news later in the year,” which seems very promising indeed.

So, Goodreads.

At around 5:00 pm on Thursday, my Twitter feed basically exploded at the news that Goodreads had been bought by Amazon. I’ve been on Goodreads for almost six years now; I also, as a rule, try to avoid giving Amazon money whenever I can.

Putting it far better than I could have, Rachel Fershleiser referred to Goodreads as “the last neutral space on the internet.” This was true. One of the the things that I liked about it was its relative agnosticism: going to a book’s page on Goodreads allowed you (if you so desired) to order the book from pretty much any online vendor imaginable. In an interview with Laura Hazard Owen, Goodreads’s Otis Chandler seemed to hedge on whether these links would remain:

As for specific design of [the links], we’ll see, but we really think about it from the user perspective. If users really want those links [to other retailers], then those links will probably still be there.

Guy LeCharles Gonzalez has some smart things to say about the deal as well. Though I think there are two different questions at work here. One is the ramifications of this deal on the bookselling world as a whole. Will it ultimately drive more people — and more money — Amazon’s way? Or will Goodreads continue as a (mostly) independent entity, with little changed except for an “an Amazon company” tag at the bottom of the page? 

Part of what makes projecting outcomes here so difficult is that neither of the two examples of relatively freestanding companies purchased by Amazon — Zappos and IMDB — corresponds directly with Goodreads. Zappos sells things; IMDB is a research tool. Goodreads has elements of one, but is also damn good at recommending books — maybe the best, short of actually asking for a personal recommendation from a bookseller, librarian, or literary-minded friend.

Some of my friends have already deleted their Goodreads accounts. I haven’t yet, though I think it’s more likely than not that I will in the next couple of months. But for all that the announcement was greeted by a fair amount of skepticism by Goodreads users, will it matter? It raises the question: what’s the tipping point going to be, for me and for others? One of these has already happened; the other two are, I think, within the realm of possibility, though I’d guess that either would be at least a few months off.

  • The purchase of Goodreads itself?
  • A theoretical point in time when “buy” links to all sellers save Amazon are disabled?
  • A theoretical point wherein — a la Flickr merging their user accounts with those of Yahoo! — your Goodreads account and your Amazon account become one?

I feel as though I’m in a similar position to the one I was in when Google announced that they were shuttering Reader. The main difference here, though, seems to be that a number of alternatives to Reader made themselves known almost immediately. I don’t know if I see this happening with an alternative to Goodreads. Part of what I’ve liked about being there is the social aspects — that if I finish a book and notice that a friend had also read it, I can send an email their way. Start a conversation. Maybe learn something about someone that I hadn’t realized before.

Even if I keep my account up and running exactly as it was before, that sense of community is going to change; more than a few close friends of mine are, I believe, in the “leave immediately” camp. The smaller my own circle on there gets, the less useful it becomes.

I’d love for there to be an alternative to Goodreads arising in the same way that, say, Feedly has positioned themselves as the heir to Google Reader. But is there money to be made in an online community of readers sharing the books they’ve read where the common element is an intense dislike (or distrust) of Amazon? It’s easy enough to export your Goodreads data; finding somewhere else to talk about books in a similar online setting may be far more difficult.

Hello, Next Big Thing Questions

So! Mairead Case tagged me in the Next Big Thing interview thread, and thus: I am answering some questions about works in progress.

What is the working title of your book?

Reel is the short novel I’m currently trying to find a home for. The novel I’m working on writing doesn’t have a title as of yet — the folder it’s saved in is called Untitled New Duchess Project. I’m writing this in pieces right now, and there isn’t one overarching image that lends itself to a title. Or, at least, there isn’t yet. It’s still a ways from being in any condition that would merit showing it to people.

Where did the idea come from for the book?

I’ve got a novel sitting in a drawer called The Freestanding. Chances are pretty good you’ll never see it. There are things about it that I love, but there are also parts of it that flat-out don’t work — ultimately, I think I plotted it a little too heavily, and the end result was something that never quite felt…right to me. That said, the first third or so — about a guy gradually losing his shit and surrendering to a particular set of masochistic impulses — is work I’m still really happy with. (I keep thinking about whittling it down to a novella, but the brighter, shinier, newer work keeps taking precedence.)

Reel was written as a kind of reaction to that — a much more improvisational style of plotting, basically, to see where that led me. I’d had the scene that opens the book — two people meeting and immediately clashing at a Seattle punk show — stuck in my head for a while, and somewhere I have a folder full of false starts. A version closer to what eventually made it into to the novel appeared on Vol.1 Brooklyn a couple of years ago. There were a few other scenes that I knew I wanted — including one sequence where one of the two central characters takes a train from New York City to Charleston, South Carolina — but largely, I didn’t really know where the narrative was going, and that was liberating.

The New Duchess project is a little more organized, structurally speaking. I keep filling up Field Notes notebooks — I’m using the County Fair editions for this, because it’s a very New Jersey-centric project. I’m writing a lot more about punk and hardcore in this one. If you go even further back into the “books in my drawer” category, there’s a novella about the slow disintegration of a friendship set against a backdrop of VFW hall shows, hardcore, and the like. I realized that, aside from a few short stories, I hadn’t really returned to that world.

What genre does your book fall under?

They’re both literary fiction, I’d say. Reel has some pulp-y elements, but I wouldn’t call it anything other than a novel.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

I’m not really sure. In the back of my head, I kept thinking of one of the main characters of Reel as looking somewhat like Kathy Foster of The Thermals

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

Reel: The parallel lives of two people who meet at a Seattle club and immediately clash.

The New Duchess book: The rise and fall and reinvention of a trio of friends who came of age in a small New Jersey town’s punk scene.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

With respect to Reel, I’d like to see it come out via a publisher, large or small. I am proud of it; will that pride mean that I’d self-publish if a publisher couldn’t be found? Maybe. But I’m not necessarily qualified as a designer, or a proofreader, or as an editor — and if I was going to set up that kind of structure for something, I’d want it to be for purposes beyond just getting one short novel out into the world.

In terms of the in-progress New Duchess book, I’m nowhere near done — it’s possible that, at day’s end, I’ll have a lot of loosely connected short stories as opposed to anything else.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

Reel took…maybe a year and a half? Two years? There are a bunch of rough starts to it sitting in old folders on my hard drive. In one of them, I coined the term “brunched econo,” which I suspect I might go to some sort of punk rock hell for.

What other books would you compare this story to in its genre?

For Reel, I’d cite William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition and the novels of Javier Marias as being very influential — especially in their ability to blend proper thrills with heady concepts. (I can and have raved about Marias’s All Souls and Your Face Tomorrow to nearly anyone who’d listen.) I also think that, in retrospect, Rick Moody’s novella “The Carnival Tradition” inspired certain structural elements.

For the New Duchess book? I’m not totally sure. It’s a novel about music, but I’ve tried to steer clear of books that have touched on the northeastern hardcore scene — working on this book is why I haven’t yet read Eleanor Henderson’s Ten Thousand Saints, for instance. And I’m still not sure if some of the weird structural things I want to do with it will actually hold up as I start revising it.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

I’ve wanted to write about Seattle for ages, and the bulk of Reel is set there. (I hope I’ve made a reasonably accurate portrayal of the city.) But it also let me riff on a lot of things, from characters’ desire to travel to mixtapes to the pleasures and anxieties that come from wandering through a city.

And one of the main characters is, basically, hyperaware; were this novel actually a pulp detective story, his powers of observation would make him the hero, but since this is more or less the real world, he’s a recluse who gets drunk most of the time and occasionally starts fights at punk shows.

In terms of the New Duchess book, I missed writing about hardcore, and New Jersey. But I also wanted to write across the span of a number of years. Reel is very, very condensed in its timeframe, and while I think that worked for that particular story, I was also eager to show relationships play out over a longer period of time. (Working on the story “An Old Songwriter’s Trick” reminded me of how enjoyable this could be — and how effective.)

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

It’s got punk rock, bad tattoos, strange art, and mysterious antiques. Reel does, anyway. Admittedly, the book in progress has several of those things as well, and a lot more Jersey. And, as of now, a section mentioning both the Hartford Whalers and Coney Island High. Why not?

A Farewell to Sound Fix

I read today that the Williamsburg record store Sound Fix is closing down in mid-April. Given that I’ve spent a fair amount of time there — both at their original Bedford Avenue location and at their current space on North 11th Street — this hits home in a lot of ways. It would be an understatement to say that I’ve bought quite a bit of music there over the years. And during the days when they had a performance space, I saw more than a few fantastic events: an Alex Ross reading; fantastic acoustic sets from Scritti Politti and Oxford Collapse and Arthur & Yu. I put together a couple of events there as well — a benefit for the East River Music Project and a music-themed reading.

And here’s where, maybe, I start pontificating. If you click on the Gothamist link above, you’ll note that the first two words in the slug for the story are “dying breed.” And…I don’t know about that. Rather, I think that “record stores are dying” meme has a way of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. But, at least in the northern Brooklyn area around Sound Fix, I don’t know if I’d say that record stores are dwindling. If you walk from Greenpoint down to, say, Metropolitan Avenue, your route will take you past a whole lot of record stores: Permanent Records and Record Grouch and Co-Op 87 and Sound Fix and Academy Annex and Earwax. It’ll also take you past the original location of Heaven Street, before they relocated to Bushwick. And I’ve seen nothing to indicate that Rough Trade isn’t still planning to open a store somewhere in Williamsburg — all of which leads me to think that, at least in certain neighborhoods, finding a record store isn’t hard.

That said, this quote from Sound Fix’s James Bradley, in the Gothamist piece, suggests the complexities of the issue — and, probably, will point some young economics writer to create a stunning analysis of North Brooklyn’s record stores in the future.

“We’ve been selling more and more vinyl, and I really thought for a period of time we could make it through just selling vinyl,” says Bradley. “But we kept running into the same problem: the record companies weren’t producing enough….”

As someone who’s been trying (to no avail) to find the new Nick Cave on LP at a record store in New York, I can see his point. Of the stores on my theoretical record-store pub crawl above, most have a sizable amount of used vinyl on sale. Finding a shop where I know that a particular LP is on sale isn’t always easy.

And, while I have good things to say about pretty much every indie record store in New York City, I’m going to miss Sound Fix tremendously.

New Zine Column, Four In


So I started a zine column at Vol.1 Brooklyn.

The first was about zines dedicated to Black Flag and Neutral Milk Hotel. (Not at the same time, mind you.) The second looked at zines made by members of Blessed Feathers and Case Studies. The third focused on the return of Rumpshaker and Chickfactor, and the fourth examined travel zines.

As of now, the column runs every other Thursday — though there are also certain features that this led me to that I’m not sure I’d have done otherwise. (My chat with one of the founders of the APRIL Festival, for instance.) Right now, it has me reading a lot more unexpected works; I’m curious to see where it’ll go from here.

Under a Volcano

Earlier this week, I took part in the Book Report Reading Series. And I read a report on Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano. Just…maybe not the version you remember.

Under the Volcano was the first in what was was intended to be a trilogy. Lowry’s Over the Pond followed, with Just About Level With the Butte completing the trilogy, killing off two of the three students and elevating the third into a kind of superhuman being. The two books that follow — Inside the Wind and On a Diagonal From the Northeast Corridor — take as their main characters Dolores, the younger sister of the demigod Harrison; Robert, killed off in Just About Level With the Butte but resurrected with a robotic body; and the man-book hybrid Alfonso, an immortal being cursed with a condition that resembles, but is not actually, aphasia.

(It was a whole lot of fun.) Also, I might as well post this song, which is almost related, in that it mentions volcanoes.

On Laird Hunt

The first time I encountered a mention of Laird Hunt’s fiction was in The Believer — Rick Moody had written a glowing essay about his work, and (given my fondness for Moody’s writing) I was hooked. Not long after that, I read Hunt’s novel The Exquisite, which is both head-twistingly plotted and one of the best evocations of early-21st-century New York City I’ve read. (Much like Moody’s “The Albertine Notes” and Jonathan Lethem’s Chronic City, Hunt’s use of surrealism to evoke that period of time seems like a wise choice.)

Hunt has a new novel out this year, titled Kind One. And in a new piece for the Los Angeles Review of Books, I looked at Hunt’s body of work with an eye towards what his latest novel might say about his progression as a writer.

Finding a label for Hunt’s six books isn’t easy; he juxtaposes pulp traditions, ambiguous narratives, and a fondness for referentiality in them, but never at the expense of being readable. His latest novel, Kind One, seems to be his most traditional — it’s set in a specific and distinct historical moment and features a linear narrative. But even here, Hunt’s eccentricities manifest themselves, leaving Kind One as an expansion of what his fiction is capable of achieving.

You can read the whole thing here.

The West


Went out to Seattle and Portland. Saw good friends, bought some books & some records, and rediscovered the pleasures of wandering through a city at night, half-buzzed on too much coffee. I hope to be back out in that part of the world before long.

Cellists & Serendipity

Synchronicity is weird.

I recently read Paul Elie’s Reinventing Bach for a profile on Elie; it was there that I learned quite a lot about the life of the cellist Pablo Casals…

…who was in turn referenced in one of the stories in the Paris Review anthology Object Lessons, which I was also reading for an assignment. It was also in that anthology that I first encountered the fiction of Jane Bowles…

…who shows up repeatedly as a point of reference in Chris Kraus’s I Love Dick, which I’m presently reading. Strange how these things line up…